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Blog: How Good Marketing Can Help You Recover from a PR Disaster

There’s nothing quite like a crisis. When confronted with an unprecedented and often extreme set of circumstances, businesses and their marketing teams are thrusted into circumstances where the survival of their company hangs in the balance of a few key decisions. Oftentimes, the confusion and risk of this territory leads responders to blunder and the business and its customers to suffer. But, sometimes, those tasked with handling a crisis not only manage to meet it, but even come through on the other side with a better public image than they had before they were tested. And, in some cases, businesses and their advertising agencies even manage to turn potentially devastating controversies into widely successful campaigns.

What this shows, beyond all else, is that a lot of good marketing is done through grace under pressure and the ability to think on one’s feet. In the paragraphs below, we’re going to run through exactly what this pragmatism looks like in action through some god-awful PR disasters and the recoveries that followed them. Hopefully, this’ll show you that good marketing can be the difference between your company sinking or swimming when the unexpected happens.

An image showcasing strategy, investigation, and the use of tools to respond to a PR crisis

The first and most impressive example of a business recovering from what would have otherwise buried them is KFC’’s ‘FCK Bucket’ damage control campaign released in the wake of a UK-wide chicken shortage and the subsequent closure of all their restaurants. Rather than blame the supplier or stay quiet for fear of making the situation worse, the fast-food giant teamed up with Mother London to take control of the situation and salvage their reputation. And, in this effort, they pulled absolutely no punches.

An high quality artistic image that displays the KFC branding in the foreground, relating to their successful campaign to manage their chicken shortage crisis

Remaining true to their brand voice, they began with a lighthearted, honest, and often self-deprecating social media push where they answered crucial questions and gave their hungry customers the feeling that they were in control. With renewed confidence, they began a fully-fledged print media campaign featuring the ‘fck bucket’ -- a way to apologise to their customers whilst also displaying their deeply human and relatable initial reaction to the situation they found themselves in. The print campaign went viral on social media and, combined with their already present communication strategy, allowed them to change the conversation and better prepare themselves for their inevitable comeback.

During the playing of the U.S national anthem at an preseason American football game in 2016, Colin Kapearnick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to sit, and later kneel, instead of standing to protest the racial injustice afflicting African Americans. After an aggressive public backlash as Kapearnick continued to make his protests, he was released from his contract and found himself out of a job -- and the prevailing opinion was that his unemployment in the league was a direct result of his refusal to stop protesting. Two years later in 2018, Nike teamed with Kapearnick to produce the inspiring 'Dream Crazy' advertising campaign centred on the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” overlayed over the former-footballers face.

This campaign caused a major controversy amongst fans of the NFL and Nike customers, as Nike are a major sponsor and partner in the league, but Kaperanick and the corporation seized the controversy and refused to apologise. Not only did this help spread awareness of the social issues that both wanted to bring attention to, but Nike saw sales increase by 31% in the wake of their bold strategy; eventually winning them an Emmy. Although Nike chose the controversy instead of being thrusted into it like KFC, their ingenuity nonetheless shows that confidence and composure are key when making a success out of navigating muddy waters. And their effort shows that, doing the right thing can be profitable, too.

a Pepsi can, relating to their successful defense of their product in response to false accusations

Confidence and composure played a pretty big role in Pepsi’s successful defense of their product in the wake of false allegations. In 1993, a series of more than 50 hoax reports emerged claiming that Pepsi cans had been tampered with across the United States. Confident, with the support of the FDA, that no such tampering existed, the soft drink company soon took every step necessary to aggressively defend their product. Instead of simply pleading for trust as some companies would do, Pepsi created a series of videos detailing the production process behind their cans. Pepsi’s North America CEO even appeared on the TV screens of Americans everywhere to assure them that there was nothing to worry about. The rumours had dissipated within a fortnight and sales recovered from their 2% slump within a month. Arrests of the false accusers were also made, but by that point the recovery was made and Pepsi emerged almost completely unscathed.

There are occasions, however, where crises are more than just shortages, controversies, and false accusations. Johnson and Johnson found themselves in this extreme situation in 1982 when customers consumed Tylenol capsules that, although normally little more than a painkiller, were in this instance laced with Cyanide -- a deadly poison. The person behind the crime was never found, but 7 people perished and the company needed to undertake damage control efforts. Considering the severity of the crisis, Johnson and Johnson handled it incredibly well -- and the case is often used on business courses as an example of one of the best crisis management efforts in history. The company pulled tens of millions of boxes of tylenol from the shelves, cut all advertising, and worked with the police and FBI to try and identify the perpetrator. The product was eventually introduced with tamper-resistant packaging to assuage people’s fears and, because of their efforts, the media gave the company a largely positive media image which, later on, helped them bounce back from what could have been a disaster.

Some crumpled snickers wrappers that symbolise the chocolate company's poor response to accusations of homophobia in their advertising

All these above cases demonstrate that a crisis can be managed and, in some instances, a successful management can improve your standing and grow your business. I do not, however, intend to give off the impression from these examples that all businesses always respond effectively. Just the other week, a Snickers advert was released in Spain that was soon pulled after it was met with widespread accusations of homophobia. Although their response is still in its infancy, their management so far has been less than stellar. The initial apology from Snickers Spain, which was largely an attempt to portray the whole thing as a misunderstanding of their intentions, wasn’t met very well -- and we’ll have to wait and see if the much better apology from Mars Wrigley, the chocolate brand’s parent company, helps them recover. And, in a spell of deja vu, Nando’s have had to shut 50 stores due a nationwide chicken shortage. Will they meet the challenge like their competitors did 3 years ago? I suppose that only time will tell, but we’ll certainly be keeping an eye as the reaction unfolds.


Well, that’s all folks. If you’d like to talk to us about your marketing strategy and how we can help you stay on top of everything, head over to our contact page and get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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