2018’s PR Tales of Horror

by Angelika Muzyka

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

Crisis PR agency presents some of this year’s dreadful PR nightmares

Crisis PR agency shares 2018's PR tales of horror

As the nights fall quicker and the time comes to illuminate your jack-o’-lanterns, we shed some light on the boogeymen (read: PR mishaps) which have cast a shadow of gloom over many business’ reputations in 2018.

As with any public disasters, the ghouls of social media and online rage were the driving force behind the bloodshed to follow, tearing into companies like a pack of hungry wolves – there was no place to hide. No doubt, the CEOs spent some sleepless nights wondering if they were cursed.

Let’s get into it.

1. “Lady Doritos”

Crisis PR agency shares 2018's PR tales of horror - Lady Doritos

When PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi revealed in an interview with Freakonomics podcast that Doritos was looking into launching “lady-friendly” crisps – a less crunchy version packed into smaller bags to fit in a handbag – the social media quickly went into a meltdown.

#LadyDoritos was number one hashtag trending on all channels with both men and women jumping on the bandwagon of mockery. Some more offended than others, everyone was utterly baffled at the reasoning behind it.

“As you watch a lot of the young guys eat chips… they lick their fingers with great glee, and when they reach the bottom of the bag they pour the little, broken pieces into their mouth… Women I think would love to do the same, but they don’t. They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little, broken pieces and the flavour into their mouth.”

Now, I’m not sure about the general public of crisp-loving females, but from reading peoples’ interactions online and my own personal experience in having no shame in devouring a pack of crisps as if no one was watching – finger-licking and knocking back the crumbs included – my theory is that no one really cares.

Sure, having “quieter” crisps would be useful but only when I’m binging on Netflix and can’t hear what the people on the other side of the screen are saying.  Also, isn’t a lunch-deal bag of crisps a good enough size for a handbag? We stash so many unnecessary things in there, fitting a pack of crisps is not really an issue we struggle with.

Not long after, Doritos issued a statement – it was all a misunderstanding, a story made out of an off-the-cuff quote.

“The reporting on a specific Doritos product for female consumers is inaccurate. We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re enjoyed by millions of people every day. At the same time, we know needs and preferences continue to evolve and we’re always looking for new ways to engage and delight our consumers.”

The statement itself feels a bit patronising. Of course, looking for gaps in the market is a good practice, but why look for a gap that doesn’t really exist?

We’ve seen too many cases of gender marketing backfiring immediately. Remember when BIC decided to release pink and purple pens “For Her”?  Or is this a case of any publicity being good publicity? It made its rounds on social media and did get people talking after all.

Whether PepsiCo proceeds to release other “snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently”, one thing is for sure – companies should think twice before making generalised statements about half of the population’s consumer preferences. It’s pretentious, lazy and most likely will cause an uproar.

2. Starbucks Philadelphia Arrests

Crisis PR agency shares 2018's PR tales of horror - Starbucks

Following the arrest of two African-American men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, the company faced a huge backlash which did not limit itself to the press and social media. The incident spurred protestors to gather in from of the shop and boycott the company. In the wake of these, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America to apologise for the “reprehensible” incident and assure the public they were taking important steps to “ensure this never happens again.”

But let’s go back to the start.

On April 12, 2018 a video was posted to Twitter by a user Melissa DePino of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson being arrested by six police officers and led away in handcuffs, while their colleague tries to make sense of the situation and find out what they had done wrong.

The men were later identified as real estate developers and released without charge after spending eight hours in custody. All of this was a result of a phone call made by the store’s manager to report the two men’s “behaviour” as disturbance and trespassing.

Why? Because they declined to leave the premises after refusing to buy anything until their acquaintance showed up for a business meeting.

Very quickly the video went viral with people calling the company out on racial profiling and involving the police in something that is a common occurrence. It’s not unusual to wait for your friends and colleagues before buying anything in the shop – if anything, it’s common courtesy.

Starbucks’ response was swift and brief with the statement outlining their “disappointment” in the arrests.

“We apologize to the two individuals and our customers and are disappointed this led to an arrest. We take these matters seriously and clearly have more work to do when it comes to how we handle incidents in our stores. We are reviewing our policies and will continue to engage with the community and the police department to try to ensure these types of situations never happen in any of our stores.”

However, when the protests began to spread it was clear that the issue was bigger than what they had initially thought. The excuse of “just doing our jobs and following procedures” wasn’t enough.

Kevin Johnson issued a second statement in a form of a letter in which he admits that “the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong.” For the first time, the CEO also finally acknowledged the issue of race, assuring that “Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling.”

He also reiterated that he “would like to have a dialogue with them to understand the situation and show some compassion and empathy for the experience they went through.”

Turns out, it wasn’t just empty promises. Kevin Johnson did meet with the two men to apologise in person and “develop specific actions and opportunities” following the incident. In May, the chain also closed its 8,000 company-owned stores in the US to educate employees about racial bias. A good start to making amends and provoking much-needed conversation.

3. Snapchat & Domestic Violence

Crisis PR agency shares 2018's PR tales of horror - Snapchat

In March 2018, Snapchat faced a widespread backlash after it ran an insensitive advert which mocked Rihanna’s domestic abuse case. The game in question “Would you Rather” is an app which presents players with two unpleasant scenarios which they have to choose from. The ad read: “Would you rather slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown?”

It doesn’t take long to realise that the game indirectly refers to the 2009 incident, when Chris Brown’s violent attack on Rihanna was all that the media talked about. At the time, it was a shock but also a brutal reminder to all that domestic abuse can happen to anyone and more often than not, it goes unnoticed. Even people who live in the spotlight have managed to hide it.

It was of no wonder that the public quickly caught on to the mistake, raising hell on social media, led by Rihanna herself. The question on everyone’s minds was: Why did the ad ever get approved?

As soon as the news was out, Snapchat removed the ad, blocked the game from advertising on its platform and issued a brief apology to BBC News.

“The advert was reviewed and approved in error, as it violates our advertising guidelines. We immediately removed the ad last weekend, once we became aware,” the company said.

But it wasn’t enough. Sure, they accepted responsibility for the mistake and took immediate action to remove the offensive content. However, the message lacked empathy. There was no acknowledgement of Rihanna or other people that might have been affected or damaged by the issue. No explanation of the company’s stance on making light of domestic violence. No clarification as to what was being done to address the problem going forward. It couldn’t be more obvious that the company wanted to quickly sweep the controversy under the carpet.

Shares in the company dropped almost 5% over night.

It was of no surprise that Rihanna publicly announced her refusal to accept the “apology” calling the company out on spending money “to animate something that would intentionally bring shame to domestic violence victims” and make a joke of it.


Following Rihanna’s statement, Snapchat’s spokesperson said in an email:

“This advertisement is disgusting and never should have appeared on our service. We are so sorry we made the terrible mistake of allowing it through our review process. We are investigating how that happened so that we can make sure it never happens again.”

Too little, too late.

These are certainly some scary PR stories, and we hope that your company has managed to avoid PR ghouls that would latch on and haunt your reputation this year. If in doubt – our team of crisis pr experts is always on hand.


Whether you already have PR representation or not, our Crisis PR planning will go a long way to settling any worries you may have. Contact our PR team on 0131 561 2244 or fill in the contact form below.

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    Angie Muzyka is a member of the expert PR team at Scottish public relations agency, Holyrood PR in Edinburgh

    Private: Angelika Muzyka

    Senior Account Executive Angie Muzyka is part of the multi-award-winning PR team at Holyrood PR, a leading Scottish PR agency

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