Top 5 worst PR disasters of 2016

The old adage ‘fight fire with fire’ is not often heard in business circles, where a softer, more considered approach is likely to yield more desirable results. PR crises are a prime example of the importance of an appropriate reaction. Here we take a look at some of the worst PR disasters of 2016. How would you have handled these situations?

  1. Wells Fargo

After admitting that employees had created about 2 million fake customer accounts since 2011 in order to reach sales goals, US banking business Wells Fargo were first accused of not taking the problem seriously, then as more information was revealed its response was perceived as dishonest, with Chief Executive John G Stumpf repeatedly blaming an ethical lapse of the 5,300 employees involved.

“Without a doubt, Wells Fargo’s handling of its fake-accounts crisis takes the prize as the worst of the year — just botched from beginning to end,” said Jim Haggerty, founder and CEO of CrisisResponsePro.

  1. Samsung

Samsung’s now infamous Galaxy Note7 smartphones began spontaneously catching fire in October 2016. Samsung’s sub-par communications effort was generally criticised for not making it clear whether the devices were safe to use or not. Initially, sales were suspended and a voluntary recall was announced with the purpose of replacing the faulty batteries, however the replacement phones continued to combust. Several countries banned the phone outright and the FAA barred the device from US aircraft. The crisis finally resulted in a worldwide recall and permanently discontinued production.

  1. Tesla

Tesla driver Joshua Brown died in June 2016 while allegedly using his car’s celebrated autopilot technology, allowing the driver to cruise hands-free. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, posted a 537-word statement on the incident which was accused of attempting to shift blame for the accident away from the US electric vehicle company and defend the system, rather than paying tribute to the deceased driver.

The statement focused on how the car’s autonomous software is designed to nudge consumers to keep their hands on the wheel, saying, “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert”. In hindsight, there may have been a better time and place for these comments in order to avoid accusations of heartlessness.

  1. Chesterfield FC

A little closer to home, Chesterfield Football Club caused a PR gaffe when they held a raffle… with a fake winner. The competition’s high-profile prize was a place on its pre-season training trip to Hungary, but after the competition attracted only 4 entrants it was quietly forgotten – until fans asked who had won, and why there was no sign of a fan with the official party in Hungary. A mysterious James Higgins from Surrey was announced as the winner, and it was revealed he was ‘too ill’ to travel.

Rumours circulated on social media that the unseen winner was fake, until Director & Company Secretary Ashley Carson issued a statement confirming the outcome was ‘misleading’ and the winning entry was not legitimate. No entrants were reimbursed and supporters were left feeling lied to.


A 2016 advertising campaign for the online dating website saw posters placed in London tube stations with the tagline #LoveYourImperfections. However, it would seem using the terminology ‘imperfections’ can be quite offensive – especially when the image simply showed a red-haired lady with a smattering of freckles.

Admitting offence was unintentionally caused, the ads were taken down and a spokeswoman said, “We believe freckles are beautiful. The intention of our ‘Love Your Imperfections’ campaign is to focus on the quirks and idiosyncrasies that people wrongly perceive to be imperfections – this can include freckles, a feature that is sometimes seen as an imperfection by people who have them.”


So what have we learned? When it comes to business, you can’t prevent the odd unpredictable crisis. Hopefully you’ll have created a communication plan beforehand, but at the very least you should try to handle the situation with dignity, taking responsibility for anything which is your fault and offering reassurance to your customers and clients whilst the issue is resolved.

Some business interruption insurance and crisis management policies may well include access to professional public relations crisis management specialists, who have expertise and experience in handling image-damaging situations. Get in touch today to find out more.

Andy Guy
Andy Guy

Hi there! I'm Andy, I'm the Head of Charity and Faith Insurance at Hine Insurance with over 30 years experience.

In my spare time, I'm a trustee of a church and I enjoy walking and getting to grips with the garden.

Articles: 259
Call Email WhatsApp Blog