13 worst corporate comms disasters of 2021

PRWeek reveals the biggest reputational flops of the year – from sexist International Women’s Day campaigns to warring cakes and racist 'banter'.

13 worst corporate comms disasters of 2021

It’s been another difficult year for many. Sometimes the problems are forced upon us, sometimes they’re self-inflicted.

2021 has been characterised by corporate comms crises of many different types. Here we shine a light on arguably the 13 worst.

‘Poverty parcels’ from Compass hit headlines

Marcus Rashford this year received an MBE for his work in fighting child food poverty. And the work involved a mini crisis in his campaign at the start of this year, after a woman tweeted her child’s pitiful free school meals food parcel.

A picture showed the deemed ‘poverty parcel’ to be worth about £5, instead of £30, and included two potatoes, two carrots, a tin of baked beans, one tomato and other small food items supposedly meant to last five days.

Rashford intervened. Eventually Compass, which owns school meal supplier Chartwells, apologised and said it had “fallen short” after a significant government investigation.

Tone-deaf KPMG tells staff to stop 'playing the victim' amid COVID-19

In February, in a move that cost him his job, KPMG UK’s chair, Bill Michael, told staff in an explosive virtual town hall to “stop moaning”, accusing some members of staff of “playing the victim” as they struggled with COVID-19 regulations.

After his tone-deaf address, which included Michael urging hundreds of staff to “take control of your life and don’t sit there and moan about it” – adding that “unconscious bias has been complete crap” – Michael was eventually forced to resign, saying that he “loved” the firm, and was “truly sorry that my words have caused hurt”.

Goldman Sachs staff reveal 95-hour working weeks during lockdown

Early this year, after a group of 13 first-year analysts made a presentation to Goldman Sachs about the “inhumane” working conditions at the firm – with one likening 95-hour working weeks to “abuse” – they were met with a somewhat insensitive response from the chief executive.

David Solomon claimed that the firm’s leadership took the issue of work-life balance “very seriously” and suggested enforcing a rule about restricting Saturday work. He added: "Just remember: if we all go an extra mile for our client, even when we feel that we're reaching our limit, it can really make a difference in our performance.”

This fell flat after some employees revealed they weren’t “showering or eating” – with one stating that their “body physically hurts all the time” and they were in “a really dark place”.

Pontins sparks racism storm for labelling Travellers as ‘undesirable guests’

The holiday park company found itself at the heart of a racism scandal in March after a whistleblower leaked an internal poster stating that travelling families were ‘undesirable guests’.

A staff Intranet post that featured a wizard stating: ‘You shall not pass’ above a list of mainly Irish surnames associated with travelling families was revealed to be a ‘blacklist’ as part of a policy to refuse bookings from Gypsies and Travellers.

Pontins was investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but its response to the racism storm was poor, with no swift apology. Instead, Pontins said in a statement that it would “further enhance its staff training and procedures in order to further promote equality throughout its business”.

Burger King apologises for ‘Women belong in the kitchen’ message on International Women’s Day

Burger King apologised for a “lazy, misogynistic” and “tone-deaf” tweet and newspaper ad stating that ‘Women belong in the kitchen’ on International Women’s Day.

The fast-food giant fell flat in raising awareness on gender equality in March when it tweeted: ‘Women belong in the kitchen’ – followed by a tweet saying: ‘If they want to, of course. Yet only 20 per cent of chefs are women. We're on a mission to change the gender ratio in the restaurant industry by empowering female employees with the opportunity to pursue a culinary career.’

This was followed by another tweet, two hours later, stating: ‘We are proud to be launching a new scholarship programme which will help female Burger King employees pursue their culinary dreams!’ which, unfortunately, also made its way into a newspaper ad with the same insensitive language.

Burger King apologised, but deleted its original tweet after noticing ‘abusive comments’ in the thread.

M&S falls flat in ignoring charity pleas from Aldi over cake lawsuit

Caterpillar-gate – which reared its furry head in the spring – was both silly and serious at the same time for two companies. Premium food retailer Marks & Spencer chose to launch a High Court intellectual property claim against budget supermarket Aldi for its Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake. M&S’ similar, long-established caterpillar cake goes by the name of Colin.

While Aldi initially responded to the damning news with humour, sharing memes and even tweeting a mock sketch of Cuthbert in court, it was about to get worse for M&S.

Aldi tweeted the brand, stating it was raising money for cancer charities by releasing a limited-edition cake – and asking M&S to "raise money for charities, not lawyers".

The M&S response, however, was rather flat… "We just want you to use your own character", they tweeted, adding Colin had been "a BIG fundraiser for years".

Boohoo accused of failing its workers for second year running

In June Boohoo was accused of failing to improve its supply chain working conditions, after it had been revealed in 2020 that Leicester factory workers were on minimum wage, with employee’s working environments being a life-threatening fire risk.

But this summer, campaign groups found little evidence that the fashion label had made efforts to improve on these conditions, claiming that drivers were paid illegally low wages and still worked in poor conditions.

Boohoo said “significant progress has been made,” adding that it had “faced into the challenges with an absolute determination to fix any problems”.

Coca-Cola hiccup after Ronaldo snubs brand in TV interview

In a famous Euro 2020 press conference this summer, Cristiano Ronaldo removed two bottles of Coca Cola – placed there by the title sponsor – from view, telling journalists in attendance to instead “drink water”; suggesting to fans that they should avoid sugary drinks.

Similarly, Italian footballer Manuel Locatelli replicated Ronaldo’s act by removing bottles of Coke from his press conference, too.

The next day, $4bn was reportedly wiped from the soft drink brand’s market value, with cries for brands to be more thoughtful and authentic in their advertising.

BrewDog and Mikkeller in bullying and sexism rows

This summer, the beer industry was rocked by serious allegations of sexism and bullying against ‘punk brewery’ BrewDog and the Danish brand Mikkeller.

In an open letter to BrewDog, former employees – who formed the movement Punks With Purpose – accused the brewer's leaders of "lies, hypocrisy and deceit" over various purpose driven campaigns, alleging it actually instilled "fear" among staff and fostered a culture within craft beer that "gives weight to sexist and misogynistic brewers”.

BrewDog’s chief executive, James Watt, apologised publicly, but it was revealed he later sent an email to staff encouraging them to sign a counter letter dismissing the accusations.

Similarly, former Mikkeller employees insisted the brand was at a “breaking point” with its “unsafe and unhealthy workplace”, accusing leaders of allowing gender-based bullying and harassment to go unchecked – with some allegations of its leaders being involved.

Facebook held secret for years that Instagram is toxic for teens

Facebook’s long-running reputational woes took another turn in September, when it was leaked by The Wall Street Journal that Facebook had been withholding research since at least 2019 that revealed Instagram made teen girls “feel worse” about their bodies.

One presentation slide from 2019, posted to the company’s internal message board, said: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls”, with another slide adding: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression”.

When it was made public that Facebook held back internal research for three years, it declined to comment and instead Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, said in a blog post that stories “focused on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light”.

NatWest fined £265m after ‘black bin bags’ of cash laundered

In October, banking group NatWest pleaded guilty to three offences under money laundering regulations after £700,000 worth of cash in bin bags was laundered in one of its branches.

The black sacks of cash, deposited by a "high-risk" gold-trading business suspected of money laundering, apparently wouldn't even fit in the branch’s floor-to-ceiling safe.

At the time, NatWest did not respond to software alerts suggesting unlawful activity, and instead deactivated security features – but the bank “deeply regrets” its actions, and chief executive Alison Rose said it would continue to invest in fighting financial crime.

Yorkshire County Cricket Club at heart of racism row after calling racist slur 'banter'

In an smouldering scandal that ignited this autumn, former professional cricketer Azeem Rafiq revealed he was left suicidal after his racist encounters at the club.

The club has since been accused of being “institutionally racist” after Rafiq revealed last year he was called a racist slur that discredited his Pakistani heritage by a senior player.

An internal investigation was launched, with the club finding that he was the victim of "racial harassment and bullying" that was deemed to be "friendly and good-natured banter". Shockingly, the club said: "The Panel does not accept that Azeem was offended by [the other player's] comments, either at the time they were made or subsequently."

Since then, no player has been punished for ill-conduct, despite findings proving that player Gary Ballance used a racist slur against Rafiq, among other key figures engaging in racist behaviour over the years – but club chairman Roger Hutton has resigned. Additionally, sponsors including Nike and Tetley’s Tea have ended their partnerships with the club.

LV= botched sale costs members £43m

Members of historic mutual insurer LV= (Liverpool Victoria) were left furious after its failed "underhand" sale to a US private equity firm cost them £43m.

After 178 years as a mutual, meaning it was owned by customers and run exclusively for their benefit, the chairman and chief executive had decided to sell to US-based private equity firm Bain Capital – but this plan finally collapsed in December.

Despite the controversial deal falling apart, invested members’ cash worth up to £43m will still be used to fund costs as the insurer hunts for a new buyer.

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