When a very public mistake or mishap occurs within your organisation, a public apology – and a commitment to right the wrong – is in order. 

A swift mea culpa, coupled with some affirmative action to make good and ensure that the likelihood of such an event occurring again is minimised, is the correct approach and will generally help an organisation win back the favour of its customers. Moreover, if the response can be injected with a little humour (where appropriate of course!), so much the better. 

Here we have highlighted examples of winners and losers when it comes to public apologies in the aftermath of a PR crisis. 

What did the winners do?

Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC

Last year, KFC went through a highly publicised crisis when “operational issues” with new delivery provider DHL caused a mass shortage of chicken at its fast food outlets across the UK. One of the most bizarre consequences of this was police forces in London and Manchester having to issue statements urging the public to stop contacting the emergency services about the shortage, as it was “not a police matter”! 

 

KFC responded by taking out full-page ads in the national press, featuring one of its famous buckets with the company name rearranged to read ‘FCK’ instead of ‘KFC’, to reflect the mood of its chicken-deprived customers. It also acknowledged that “a chicken restaurant without any chicken is not ideal.” This humorous response to what was a serious situation for the company was very well received, and no lasting damage was done to the brand. 

PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC

One of the highest profile cock-ups to take place anywhere in the world in recent years was the Oscars blunder in 2017, when an envelope mix up resulted in Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announcing ‘La La Land’ as Best Picture winner, when the actual winner was ‘Moonlight.’

Beatty had a duplicate card with the winner of Best Actress, which had been awarded to Emma Stone for La La Land immediately prior to the Best Picture announcement. Beatty paused as he read the card out but continued anyway, wrongly announcing La La Land as the winner. The La La Land production team and cast were already on stage collecting the prize and delivering their speeches before a representative from accountancy firm PwC came onto the stage to inform them of the error. 

PwC was in charge of supervising the counting of the ballots for each award, as well as the presentations on the night. Following the error, which could scarcely be more public, given that around 30 million people were watching it live in the US and many millions more worldwide, PwC issued a statement saying “We sincerely apologise to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture.” 

PwC added that it deeply regretted that the incident occurred and said it appreciated the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, and the host Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.

Adding to the embarrassment felt by PwC in the wake of the blunder was the fact that in the week leading up to that year’s Oscars ceremony, PwC’s Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, who were responsible for overseeing the counting of the votes and are the only two people who know all the winners before they are announced, gave an interview to the BBC in which they outlined its “watertight system” for ensuring that the awards presentations pass without a hitch.   

Following the ceremony, PwC assumed full responsibility for the blunder and promised to fully investigate what went wrong with the system to prevent such an error occurring in the future. Given that the profile of the event could barely be higher, that PwC have emerged from it with their reputation fairly intact is a credit to them and the steps they took in its aftermath.     

What can we learn from the losers?

Facebook

Facebook has a long history of introducing features that ride roughshod over its users’ privacy then apologising only in the aftermath of public outcry. Indeed, the very genesis of Facebook, called Facemash, which was launched in 2003, a year before it evolved into Facebook, was a site that lifted pictures of Harvard students from the university’s intranet without their consent and invited other students to rate them on their “hotness.”

In the intervening years, Facebook has repeatedly failed to protect user data and privacy, despite offering assurances that it would do so. 

One of the most egregious instances of this was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it emerged early in 2018 that the political data firm had harvested the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent and used it for political purposes in the 2016 US presidential campaign. 

When the scandal first broke, Facebook vigorously and indignantly defended itself, arguing that people had consented by virtue of their privacy settings. But the backlash only intensified when it was reported that Facebook’s privacy settings were buried across 20 pages of the site, and that Cambridge Analytica were one of many organisations guilty of exploiting that by harvesting Facebook users’ data without their knowledge. 

Eventually, Facebook’s chief privacy officer said Facebook would move all the privacy settings into one place (without offering an explanation as to why they weren’t in the first place), something Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised to do “within weeks” of another privacy breach eight years previously but failed to follow through on. 

Zuckerberg then went on an apology tour, giving interviews to a variety of global media outlets in which he eventually apologised for the privacy breach but still qualified it by claiming that Facebook cares about its users, and used his soapbox to disparage other tech companies. 

Zuckerberg frequently refers to Facebook’s users as the “Facebook community”, but a community typically has rights and makes decisions for the good of the group as a whole, so by that rationale, Facebook’s users are not a community, they are a user group, because as majority shareholder, Zuckerberg calls the shots and the users essentially have to like it or lump it, and that shows no sign of changing anytime soon.  

 

Pepsi 

In 2017, Pepsi drew a barrage of negative publicity for an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, in which she quelled a riot by offering a police officer a can of Pepsi, a gesture which elicited cheers from the onlooking protestors. 

Given that the US was at the time (and still is) mired in controversy over the killing by police of African American youths, and the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum with protests over perceived unlawful killings happening all over the country, the idea that a protest could be quelled by a can of soda was tone deaf to say the least, and highly offensive to many. 

Following the ad’s release, Pepsi was eviscerated on social media, as they were seen to be capitalising on the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soft drink. The daughter of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Bernice King, even weighed in, posting on Twitter “If only daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.” 

Pepsi eventually pulled the ad, but a few months later, Pepsi’s CEO, Indra Nooyi continued to defend the ad, demonstrating that the company still didn’t get what all the fuss was about. 

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