Brand Reputation

Crisis management lessons: brands that thrived and brands that flopped

A crisis is an extraordinary event that requires action to mitigate damage to your company. In this article, we’ll focus specifically on perilous events that are visible to the world, adding the extra elements of public scrutiny and reputational risk. We’ll look at examples of how companies handle a public relations crisis or a social media crisis. Some brands managed to navigate a crisis swimmingly, while others are still trying to recover. 

The point is not to grade or judge any of the professionals involved in these crises, but to extract valuable lessons that can help other marketers broaden their knowledge of brand crisis management by observing different crisis management strategies.

What are the main causes of a crisis?

There’s only really one consistent factor that exists for any type of PR crisis: you have a lot of people pissed off at you. The root cause is hard to predict because it has a variety of forms. A quick review of corporate crisis examples shows how variable the source can be:

  • Supply chain issues impacting product availability
  • Product flaws, particularly with products that may explode
  • Unfair treatment of employees
  • Cultural insensitivity in marketing or advertising
  • Valuing profit more than public health
  • Toxic culture or leadership
  • Dismal customer support
  • Getting caught making false or misleading statements
  • A fictional episode of a TV show that made your product seem unsafe

If you have a crisis communication plan that covers every one of these angles, you’re a miracle worker. A more practical approach to crisis communication management is to plan for your most visible and feasible risks, and develop clear processes and practices to handle the unexpected.


Brands that have been tested by crisis

As we explore PR crisis management examples, we had some criteria in mind:

  • Brand awareness: the biggest PR crisis examples occur when a brand is widely known. Global B2C brands that are household names face heightened risks when a scandal occurs.
  • Media forums: We deliberately looked for some social media crisis examples as well as more traditional media. Social media crisis management requires a unique set of crisis management tools and a nimble approach to crisis communication management.
  • Best practice examples: We felt it was important to share some successful crisis management examples that marketers can learn from.
  • (Not so) Best practice examples: It’s way less painful to learn from other’s mistakes, so we compiled some crisis communication examples that illustrate what NOT to do. 

Success Stories: Brand that thrived through crisis

With the types of crises we’re featuring, success is simply getting through the crisis with minimal financial and reputational damage. When things go wrong, getting back to business-as-usual is the number one goal. Here are some companies that turned their crisis into a speed bump rather than a head-on collision:


KFC has no chicken, gets fried

KFC’s UK operations nearly came to a halt in 2018 due to supply chain issues. The switch to a new delivery service resulted in delays of food ingredients and forced the fried chicken chain to close 600 out of 870 locations in the UK and Ireland.

Facing massive revenue losses and hordes of angry customers, KFC had the option of deflecting the blame to their courier, DHL. Instead, the crisis communication team took the high road, offering a sincere-yet-amusing apology to their customers. 

Lesson learned: Even for factors beyond your company’s control, taking accountability and offering a sincere apology is often the best path to redemption.  


Samsung provides too much bang for your buck

Imagine the concern of Samsung’s loyal customers when they read reports of the Samsung Note 7 catching on fire or even exploding. The phones were recalled and the product was canceled, but the financial damage was devastating. Some analysts suggested Samsung might never recover from losing $26 billion in stock value and $17 billion in sales. 

Samsung reoriented its product team for an intensive problem-solving mission involving 700 engineers testing over 200,000 devices. They brought in third-party safety auditors, and established a battery advisory board. 

Samsung is included in our crisis management plan examples because of the amazing job the company did at sharing its improvement story with the public. They rented booths in airports to speak with customers and launched email campaigns describing their quality assurance initiatives. Fast forward from 2018 to the present day, and Samsung is running neck-and-neck with Apple for the world’s top smartphone manufacturer.

Lesson learned: Taking corrective steps to bounce back from a crisis will yield far greater outcomes if you bring customers along on the journey through regular communication.


Burger King gets flame-broiled

It’s International Women’s Day, so what does Burger King tweet? Just this: “Women belong in the kitchen.” What?! The backlash was instant and virtually all the major media outlets pounced on the story. The context everyone was missing is that the tweet was part of a broader campaign intended to promote gender equality and a new scholarship fund for female chefs. But it was immediately clear that Burger King was asking the public to read way too much in between the lines.

The tweet was deleted within a few hours, and Burger King delivered an apology and an explanation, adding the well-meaning context that was originally missing. The scandal lasted no longer than the digestive impact of eating a Whopper.

Lesson learned: Act fast! Social media is called “viral” because it can spread so quickly. Had Burger King waited a day or two to act, their originally insensitive tweet would have drawn the attention of millions of new viewers.    


Cautionary Tales: Brands that flopped during a crisis 

If there’s a golden rule for crisis management and communications, it would be: don’t make the situation worse! During a crisis, PR teams should always remember that emotions will be running high within your normally-loyal community, and every action you take will be viewed critically. Here are some crisis management plan examples to avoid.


Bud Light aggravates every gender

Certainly the most polarizing and messy of all crises so far in 2023 is the Bud Light scandal. Faced with a dwindling market, the brewer wanted to reach new and younger audiences. They sponsored a transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, to create a post promoting their beer. Unfortunately for Bud Light, the US is undergoing a wave of anti-trans sentiment, so a tiny campaign representing a minuscule fraction of Bud Light’s marketing budget became a lightning rod in a culture war. Then came videos of celebrities shooting cans of Bud Light, and a widespread boycott of Bud Light that caused a double-digit drop in year-over-year sales.

The cautionary tale is based on the reaction of leaders at Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch. The CEO released a vague, semi-apologetic statement that didn’t appease anyone. The company placed two Bud Light executives on leave. Meanwhile, LGBTQ advocates began calling for a boycott of Bud Light based on the company’s unwillingness to take a stance. The company’s multiple donations to anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans politicians resurfaced. Very recently, Mulvaney finally spoke of the whole scandal and indicated she has not heard a word from the Bud Light team.

Lesson learned: Sensitive cultural issues are no place to casually fish for sales lift. That’s not to say that brands shouldn’t express their values – in fact, customers often respect and reward that. But without the fortitude and commitment to stand by those values, you risk offending everyone when you backpedal.

Volkswagen’s dishonesty erodes customer trust 

In 2015, Volkswagen was accused by the USA Environmental Protection Agency of intentionally violating the Clean Air Act. There was no room for an accidental “oops” here – the company used software to create false readings that allowed cars to pass emissions tests. With public relations in marketing, one of the most sensible crisis management steps is to own up to an issue, address it, and ride out the wave of negative sentiment that follows until it dies down.

Instead, Volkswagen executives claimed they didn’t know about the issue. They maintained their innocence for over a year. Faced with exposure from an investigation by regulators, the company finally came clean and admitted to deceptive practices.

Lesson Learned: Volkswagen’s denials only served to anger their customer base, and prolong the negativity far longer than necessary. 

Balenciaga gets weird, blames others

The fashion brand Balenciaga created a big wave of “what the…?” when they launched an ad campaign featuring images of children holding teddy bears dressed in bondage gear. That should be the end of story: cautionary tale complete. But, after pulling the campaign, the company issued an apology while adding it is “taking legal action against those responsible for creating the set…” The public’s reaction was skeptical at best, with one commenter stating “Let’s just get rid of all law enforcement and have apology enforcement. Imagine that kind of world? Ho wait we’re in it NOW!”

Lesson learned: There’s an obvious lesson on crisis management in public relations here. When you publicly blame people you’ve hired for your crisis, many will question the company’s decision-makers. 

Detect and prevent social media crises with SentiOne Listen

Crisis communication management tools allow you can take action quickly to avoid a public relations crisis. SentiOne Listen is a powerful social listening platform that connects you with the opinions, questions, and pain points of your clients and prospects. Monitor brand mentions, conduct trend analysis, configure alerts, or gather insights from SentiOne Listen’s extensive reporting capabilities. To learn more, visit or book a demo