crisis pr

As we look ahead to 2020, it pays to look back at some of the PR disasters of 2019, to glean lessons from the mistakes others made. Some massive, worldwide brands and household names found themselves in need of crisis PR help. 

Nike Scrambles to Save Face

For decades now, a large focus of Nike’s consumer PR approach has been influencer marketing. From Michael Jordan to LeBron James to Tiger Woods, Nike always goes after the biggest names, often gaining their endorsement of swoosh-embossed products. Sometimes, though, this kind of consumer PR can come back and bite you.

Nike courted controversy in both 2018 and 2019 by choosing embattled former quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a face of the company. Social media users fought each other, but for the most part, this controversy was all smoke and little fire. What did end up costing Nike, though, was the allegation that the company “reduced endorsement compensation” for some influencer athletes during their maternity leave.

When this news hit, fans were outraged and many immediately voted with their wallets. Nike scrambled, clearly under-prepared to deal with the blowback, promising to make changes while watching its market cap plummet more than a billion dollars.

Apple Faces Public Security Problems

There was a time when nearly everything Apple did came up roses. The company just couldn’t seem to lose. Lately, though, their track record has been more hit and miss. In 2019, the company kicked off the year with another major PR disaster.

Nearly a year to the day after the 2018 “throttling” controversy, media reports revealed that a “bug” in the Facetime app allowed callers to “secretly eavesdrop” on people they wanted to call. In response, Apple delayed. This allowed the story to churn, stretching across news cycles and enraging customers, who were outspoken in their criticism of a company that didn’t appear to understand how upset its customer base was.

Fraudulent College Moms

In perhaps one of the weirdest headline-grabbing PR scandals of 2019, dozens of people were implicated in a college-admissions fraud scandal. The story seemed pulled right out of a daytime soap opera: popular actresses manipulating the system, entitled teens getting by on their parents’ name and money, culpable school officials, and a bunch of people who didn’t seem one bit remorseful.

The general public responded with derision, and once-popular and well-regarded performers were lampooned as they waited to learn if they would face jail time. In response, some of the biggest names in the scandal, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, clammed up, saying little to nothing as the negative news stories and brutal social media lambasting continued.

Boeing is Grounded

Boeing had a terrible 2019, not necessarily on financial sheets, but in the headlines. Following two deadly crashes that stayed in the news cycles for months, Boeing saw one of its best-selling commercial airliners grounded indefinitely. While the company is reportedly working round the clock to fix the problems that led to the crashes, that message is not nearly enough for regulators, who have been either denying or delaying Boeing’s requests to get their jets back in the air.

The more time this story remains high up in the headlines, the more consumers are going to get a negative impression of the company and the plane in question, the 737 Max. It’s not helping that the media, in support of the main narrative, is putting out continuous secondary stories relating the history of quality complaints targeted at Boeing in general and the factory where the 737 Max was manufactured in particular. To date, Boeing has tried many different ways to push back against the PR crisis, most recently ousting the CEO. None of their efforts have made much of a dent in the growing negative public impression.

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder & Chairman of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently owned PR firms in the United States. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth and vision, with the agency earning accolades including being named a Top 50 Global PR Agency by PRovoke Media, a top three NYC PR agency by O'Dwyers, one of Inc. Magazine's Best Workplaces and being awarded multiple American Business Awards, including a Stevie Award for PR Agency of the Year. With over 25 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected public relations executives. Throughout his career he has advised leading and high-growth businesses, organizations, leaders and boards across corporate, technology and consumer industries. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications. He has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly in the media and has authored two editions of his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations," which is an industry best-seller. Torossian's strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, a Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, and a recipient of Crain's New York Most Notable in Marketing & PR. Outside of 5W, Torossian serves as a business advisor to and investor in multiple early stage businesses across the media, B2B and B2C landscape. Torossian is the proud father of two daughters. He is an active member of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of multiple not for profit organizations.