The Most Epic PR Fails of 2017

November 28, 2017


Social media continues to inform the lives of everyone, especially brands. The rapid rate at which information is flows via social is probably why 2017 had some of the most epic PR fails of all time. No brand is safe anymore; it doesn’t matter if you’re a 10-person startup or a billion-dollar corporation, everyone can learn a lesson or two of what not to do in a public relations fiasco. So, let’s take a look at the top PR fails this year and what their internal PR tactic was for handling the situation – I think we all know where this is going to start…


PR Fail Level: Blame the victim.

Although United was one of the first major brands this year to encounter a cringe-worthy PR disaster, it’s pretty tough to top how their communications team handled the crisis. United probably could’ve avoided the most of the fallout from forcefully removing a passenger from its plane, had they handled the situation in the terminal area and increased the price of the vouchers offered to volunteers, but we all know how this went down.

After the incident, which everyone still has engrained in their minds, United’s corporate spokespeople resorted to an extremely legalistic approach, claiming the airline’s employees followed standard procedures. As if that wasn’t upsetting enough, United further hid behind their legal jargon by explaining that the passenger had been asked to politely give his seat up before force was used and the CEO apologized only for the “overbook situation.” In other words, they turned to blaming the victim.

A lesson to take from this blog post is that when preparing your crisis communications plan, one should never blame the victim but instead acknowledge the mistakes (because no one is perfect) and offer a heartfelt apology. Because United failed to do this, the airline’s billion-dollar brand reputation crumbled and travelers will remember this PR screw up for years to come.


PR Fail Level: Pretend it didn’t happen.

As technology continues to evolve and hackers get increasingly better at what they do, companies should anticipate that they will have a security breach at some point – it’s not if, but when. At Barokas Communications, we work with our clients to ensure that a crisis communications plan is in place before any kind of threat is expected. When Equifax suffered a breach that potentially impacted almost 150 million consumers, they most definitely had a plan in place but as we know in the industry, timing can be everything.

Equifax first learned on July 29 this year that personal data had been exposed, yet it didn’t notify the public until Sept. 8 — almost 6 weeks after the initial report! While Equifax might have had a good reason for waiting to disclose the breach (though, I doubt they did), this created a public perception that the credit reporting agency had stalled while millions of Americans were none the wiser, damaging their trust with consumers.

Equifax’s PR fail is a good reminder to us all that if you don’t try to get in front of the news when you know about it, prepare to get owned by the public. Consumers have always had a distrust of corporation organizations for reasons like this, so for Equifax, this miss-step in their communications plan cut deep.


PR Fail Level: No comment.

Poor Uber. Where do we even start here? 2017 was not the rideshare company’s most flattering year as the tech community watched scandal after scandal unfold each month. From their hot-head CEO Travis Kalanick yelling explicit comments at an Uber driver to sexual harassment suits and the most recent hack of the app, Uber’s string of blunders has only been amplified by the age of social media – anyone remember #DeleteUber?

While many of Uber’s PR fails could be attributed to the lack of a successful communications plan, the company had no virtual reaction until several months after these scandals broke out, as if they were riding out the wave. In a crisis situation, a brand’s equity suffers when a company is slow to react or respond. Even though Uber came out later to release the results of an intensive investigation, many stakeholders think it came a little too late.

Uber’s “no comment” strategy on dealing with these gaffes only made it worse for them in the end. They lost customers, lost employees, and angered their investors – the fall out for the rideshare startup was bad. The lesson to take away here, is that had Uber demonstrated that they were committed to dealing with the crisis, and perhaps let Kalanick go earlier on, they might have been able to salvage their brand.

Tech PR experts know that you might not be able to predict when a crisis will happen but you should always have a plan of action just in case. Preparing for the worst is crucial to preventing any kind of backlash from the public. And once a blunder does happen, your external response is what will really define you as a company and brand.  If nothing else, hopefully this serves as a reminder to all the PR folks out there to think about the type of responses in your communications plans, take social media into account and most of all, make sure you don’t make the list of Most Epic PR Fails of 2018.

– Aubrey

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