Lessons Learned from 2023’s PR Crises

Jan 8, 2024Strategy

Most businesses eventually experience a PR crisis—or, at the very least, an incident that could become a crisis. The damage the crisis inflicts, however, has less to do with the incident itself and more to do with your company’s response.

While the public relations crises of 2023 can’t be undone, they can serve as lessons for the rest of us. Here, we’ll identify some of last year’s lingering publicity gaffes and examine simple yet savvy strategies for keeping your company out of harm’s way.


5. Data Breaches: A Permanent Problem

Significant data breaches hit countless companies in 2023. These breaches underscore the increasing vulnerability of digital data and highlight the substantial financial impact, which involves security improvement costs, legal liabilities, and the loss of valuable customer trust. 

Consumer response to data breaches has softened in recent years, perhaps because we’ve all accepted these breaches as unavoidable aspects of the digital era. Nevertheless, I foresee data breaches stressing PR and crisis management departments throughout 2024.

Last year, T-Mobile endured a particularly extensive breach that affected approximately 37 million people. They also demonstrated how such incidents should be managed.


The lesson

Handling data breaches requires prompt action and transparent communication—two moves T-Mobile enacted seamlessly. It’s crucial to acknowledge the breach quickly, inform those affected, and provide clear steps for mitigating risks. Most importantly, companies must bolster their cybersecurity measures to prevent future incidents. If your business hasn’t yet invested in a cybersecurity audit or implemented preventative measures, it’s time to get busy!


Public relations pro tip

Our always-online society is constantly at risk of losing personal data to hackers. Whether you’re a global enterprise or a mom-and-pop shop, you’ll never regret implementing the latest safety protocols. Proactive cybersecurity may save your business!


4. Silicon Valley Bank: The Cost of Miscommunication

In March 2023, Silicon Valley Bank announced via a press release that it was raising cash, an attempt to bolster its balance sheet that triggered panic among stakeholders. The resulting stock collapse, run on the bank, and ultimate bank failure could have been avoided had SVB only paired its financial news with critical context.


The lesson

Even seemingly minor shifts in a company’s strategy can upset stakeholders, especially when customer money is on the line. SVB should have taken an extra-sensitive approach to sharing its financial news, acknowledging customer fears, explaining the bank’s strategy, and reinforcing stakeholder confidence with transparent and timely communication.  


Public relations pro tip

Now controlled by the FDIC, Silicon Valley Bank didn’t get the opportunity to elect wiser leaders. Still, you can protect your company from an uncertain future by crafting a succession plan. Goodwin Consulting can help you develop a comprehensive crisis plan that even covers loss of leadership.


3. M&M’s: Good Intentions, Bad Results

No one anticipated a controversy over computer-animated candy, but that’s precisely what M&M’s got in 2023 when the chocolate brand attempted to redesign its colorful “spokespeople.” 

The company’s intentions may have been well-placed; it aimed to “desexualize” the Green character and add a relatable “anxious” Orange character. However, M&M’s cartoonish commentary on gender and mental health didn’t sit well with customers who liked the well-known brand’s long history of cheeky humor and low-stakes storylines. 


The lesson

Companies need to tread carefully when dealing with social and cultural issues. Any shift in branding—especially for a well-known brand—must be rooted in a deep understanding of your customers’ preferences and expectations, and branding shifts that touch on sensitive subjects require even more caution. 

Not every brand is situated to disrupt social norms, and some attempts can prompt consumer unease. Stay true to your brand, honor your customer base, and don’t get distracted trying to fix strategies that aren’t broken.


Public relations pro tip

Crisis drills can teach you to respond to unexpected controversy. When you’re prepared for the worst-case scenario, you’ll be ready to navigate even the stickiest PR incident.


2. Bud Light: A Lose-Lose Social Media Situation

When Bud Light sent a personalized can of beer to transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney and partnered with her for a promotion, the company hoped to reach a new audience of light beer drinkers. Instead, conservative customers boycotted, Budweiser’s sales plummeted, and two Anheuser-Busch executives took extended leaves of absence. 

What Bud Light didn’t do was provide even a modicum of support for Ms. Mulvaney, who herself was harassed due to the backlash. The beer brand instead distanced itself from the social media celebrity, who shared, “For a company to hire a trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse, in my opinion, than not hiring a trans person at all.”


The lesson

Like M&M’s, Bud Light severely misunderstood its customer base when it selected superfan Dylan Mulvaney as a campaign partner. The PR crisis grew when Bud Light failed to stand by the popular influencer, inciting additional ire from LGBTQIA+ advocates. 

Even an ill-advised partnership should never prompt a company to disrespect its marketing partners. Bud Light could have realigned its campaign strategy and still treated Ms. Mulvaney with kindness and professionalism—after all, she had fulfilled her obligations flawlessly. In the face of controversy, brands need to own their decisions, course-correcting without betraying their values or people.


Public relations pro tip

Too few companies understand the art of public apology. Learning how and when to say “I’m sorry” can save your business from further chaos when a crisis arises.


1. Elon Musk: The Controversy Curator

I have to hand it to Elon Musk for serving up PR crisis after PR crisis in 2023. From major Tesla mishaps to a tumultuous Twitter takeover, the innovator’s actions generated no shortage of uproar from the public and stakeholders. Known as a trailblazer and a disruptor, Mr. Musk is loved and loathed in equal measure for his aggressive business decisions and irreverent treatment of those he employs.


The lesson

While some find Elon Musk’s unfiltered, devil-may-care approach refreshing, others deem it inappropriate for a highly influential CEO. There’s a fine line between being authentically human and treating the world like your personal play space. While transparency can be a powerful tool for building trust, oversharing personal views, especially controversial ones, can backfire, alienating customers with different beliefs.

Musk’s strategy has proven effective for him in many ways, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for a powerful individual with a global platform might translate poorly for smaller businesses or different industries. To build a loyal customer base, focus on sharing values and stories that forge meaningful connections while maintaining a professional distance from crisis-causing controversies.


Public relations pro tip

Reputation management is crucial in any crisis prevention strategy, and online reviews are your first defense. Do you know where you’ve been reviewed? Do you know what those reviews say? We can help you build a strategy for even the wildest online review.


The Subtlety of Crisis Management

My years in PR and crisis management have taught me that any PR crisis requires a nuanced approach. You must understand your audience, stay true to your brand values, and communicate transparently—even when you’d rather bury your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away.

At Goodwin Consulting, we help companies navigate the challenging waters of controversy, from data breaches to brand identity crises. When you know how to navigate a crisis, you’ll always be at your best.

Contact our team to learn more about our strategic public relations services and crisis management training.