Truly, madly, deeply: the PR apologies (and non-apologies) of 2018

PR gaffes, blunders and mistakes are nothing new, and neither are the resultant apologies - or lack of them. PRWeek looks back upon a 'sorry' 2018...

H&M is 'deeply sorry'

Kicking off a year of apologies was fashion retailer H&M, which faced accusations of casual racism in January after choosing a black boy to model its latest sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan "coolest monkey in the jungle".

After deploying the unapologetic "sorry if anyone was offended" line to media outlets, the brand quickly realised that would not suffice and upgraded its apology to being "deeply sorry" and promised to make sure it did not happen again.

KFC is really f***ing sorry

Perhaps the ‘most heartfelt and direct apology of the year’ award should be given to KFC. The fast-food outlet was on course to be tarred and feathered by the public after running out of its main ingredient because of distribution issues with its new supplier.

But when agencies Mother and Freuds came to the rescue, the brand swiftly grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat and delivered a masterclass in crisis management. Using social media and a full-page ad in newspapers, KFC made its regret abundantly clear. The crisis comms response earned KFC Cannes Lions gold and the even more prestigious PRWeek Top of the Month spot for February.

TSB is 'deeply sorry' while Puma is 'misunderstood'

Following a quiet March for cock-ups big enough to be on PRWeek’s radar, two April howlers came along in quick succession...

TSB

TSB’s failed IT upgrade left many of its customers struggling to access basic services, such as getting hold of their hard-earned money or paying urgent bills.

CEO-at-the-time Paul Pester took to the airwaves to tell customers he was deeply sorry but that the problem had now been fixed.

Not so, said customers, who continued to bombard the bank’s social media accounts with angry messages.

Two days later, and four months before his eventual resignation, Pester admitted that only half of customers with an online account had returned to normal service.

Puma

Later in the month, sports brand Puma issued a carefully worded statement designed to deflect criticism of its use of drug culture terms, such as "trapping", to promote an event for young entrepreneurs.

Puma said it regretted "any misunderstandings" over its use of the terminology.

Mastercard and Paddy Power’s non-apologies

Two prizes in June – one for a non-apology and the other for an aggressive non-apology, from Mastercard and Paddy Power respectively.

Mastercard

Mastercard’s ‘meals for goals’ campaign – launched for the football World Cup – saw the global payments titan offer to donate 10,000 meals to children living in poverty every time football royalty Messi or Neymar scored a goal until 2020. Despite its good intentions, it bombed from a PR perspective and was quickly dubbed "the Hunger Games" by critics of the scheme.

Mastercard backed down and said it would simply donate two million meals to children in 2018 but, crucially, it did not apologise for the poor taste of the promotion, saying instead that it was "adjusting" the campaign based on the feedback. Mastercard also persuaded charity partner, the World Food Programme, to lend it additional moral cover by issuing a statement to say how much it valued its association with them.

Paddy Power

However, when Paddy Power’s feet were put to the fire for supposedly daubing a polar bear with a St George’s cross, a spokesman for the brand used the insult-du-jour of ‘snowflake’ to describe people who were angered by the stunt, proving that there is a third way of handling brand attacks, which is to abuse your critics.

Elon Musk goes too far

Controversial tech guru, for which read ‘loose cannon’, Elon Musk could not let his ego lie when his offer of assistance during the unfolding drama of 12 schoolboys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand was dismissed as a "PR stunt". Lashing out at Brit Vern Unsworth, an experienced diver who had been asked to help in the rescue effort, Musk made a baseless accusation and branded Unsworth a "Pedo guy" during a Twitter spat. When Unsworth threatened to sue, Musk eventually backed down and said his comments were unjustified.

Tui’s minimised apology

Just in time for the summer holidays - and utterly misjudging the public mood - budget airline TUI tried to play down the problem when it was accused of sexism and promoting gender stereotypes to children.

Stickers reading "future pilot" and "future cabin crew" were fine in themselves, but when critics pointed out that boys were predominantly given the "future pilot" stickers and girls the latter, accusations of sexism were hard to deflect.

TUI said it was "sorry to hear a small number of customers have been upset by this" and dismissed the problem as a "simple mix-up".

Frank PR holds ‘rogue employee’s’ hands up 

A rogue employee was blamed in September when beer brands BrewDog and Scofflaw partnered for a joint promotion, scuppered when Frank, the PR firm for Scofflaw, tried to promote the event with an offer of free beer for Trump supporters.

As the partnership between the two beer producers began to be torn asunder in real time, Frank apologised for the press release sent to journalists and said it "was not a message from the brand".

Ryanair 'apology' severely delayed

With falling profits, strikes and flight cancellations, Ryanair would have already been happy to delete October off the calendar. But things got much worse when video footage surfaced of of a racist incident on one of its flights and the controversial airline's response – or lack of it – provoked an apoplectic backlash across social media.

Things escalated when the 77-year-old victim did the rounds on TV while Ryanair's high-profile CEO Michael O’Leary appeared AWOL. A longer statement, almost a week later, claimed the airline had offered 'very sincere apologies' to the victim, but came far too late to appease the detractors.

Pret’s earnest apology

The final big apology for 2018 was delivered in earnest by Pret a Manger boss Clive Schlee, following an inquest into the tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse after she ate one of the chain’s sandwiches containing an unlabelled allergen.

Schlee said Pret was "deeply sorry for the loss of Natasha" and said the sandwich chain would begin trials of full labelling of its products, including allergens, from the following month onwards, in a bid to draw a line under the tragedy.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse

Advice for 2019

Problems will occur, brands will make gaffes and continue to misjudge the public’s mood on the issues of the day.

But if the examples above teach anything, it is that a sincere - rather than a half-hearted or guarded - apology, delivered swiftly and containing no legalese, can make a big difference as to how quickly consumers are willing to forgive and forget. 

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