25 Public Relations Nightmares That You Won’t Believe Actually Happened

Posted by , Updated on November 28, 2022

Public relations is supposed to be about managing the spread of information between an organization or an individual and the public. It’s goal is basically to make the client (the aforementioned individual or organization) look good in the eyes of the public. In some ways this is very similar to advertising in that it seeks to gain exposure for the client. The primary difference is best summed up in this way – rather than featuring the client in an ad next to an article, the client is mentioned within the article. As you can probably guess, public relations is much more subtle than advertising (not always, but often). It takes a special understanding of how people, relationships, and other factors all interplay with one another.

These days it has become even more complicated with social media playing a huge role. In fact, public relations can hardly catch a break. One wrong tweet, one misspelled word in an email, one letter that should have been capitalized, and everything goes down hill fast. It can be quite an intense job and it definitely takes a unique individual to do it well. So get ready because these are 25 Public Relations Nightmares That You Won’t Believe Actually Happened!

Featured Image: Niuton may via Flickr


Todd Davis

Todd DavisSource: wikipedia

As the CEO of LifeLock, an identity theft protection company, Todd gave out his social security number to show how secure LifeLock was. Perhaps not surprisingly, his identity was stolen. 13 times.


Phillip Morris

Phillip MorrisImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

When the Czech government came out with research showing that smoking was costing the healthcare system, Phillip Morris tried to show that smoking actually saved the government money due to the early deaths of smokers. Of course, there was a predictable public backlash.


Mike Jeffries

Mike JeffriesImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Although Abercrombie and Fitch has had its share of mess ups, nothing quite competes with CEO Mike Jeffries explaining why the company doesn’t have any plus sizes. In his own words, “fat chicks will never be part of the ‘in’ crowd,” and he doesn’t want overweight women wearing his brand. He only wants good looking people. So yeah, there’s that.


The Ludlow Massacre

The Ludlow MassacreImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

When miners working for the Rockefellers started striking in Colorado, they (the Rockefellers) called in the National Guard. Many of the miners, along with their families, were slaughtered. In response, the Rockefellers founded the first PR department to deal with the fallout. They also started the Rockefeller Foundation to try showing people that they’re not that bad.



HooverImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Hoover thought it would be a good idea to give away free plane tickets with its vacuum cleaners. Well, people eventually realized that the plane tickets were often worth more than the actual vacuum cleaner. Hoover lost a good amount of money on that one.



GreenpeaceImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Defacing a world heritage archaeological site in Peru (one of the last well-preserved Nazca lines) to leave the message, “Time for change! The future is renewable GREENPEACE” is never a good move. In any situation.



McDonald'sImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In 1984, McDonald’s ran a campaign during the Olympics where they would give people scratchcards with various events on them. If the US won, you could redeem it for a free burger. McDonald’s tried to be smart and set it up so that a good number of the scratchcards were for events that the Soviets would typically win. Unfortunately for them, the Soviets boycotted the Olympics that year, and the Americans won almost everything.



DiGiorno'sImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Following the Ray Rice domestic abuse incident, a lot of people were asking why his fiancee had stuck around. This led to the WhyIStayed hashtag. DiGiorno’s, however, completely missed the tone of the conversation and posted the following tweet – “#WhyIStayed: He had pizza.” Bad move.


Clayton Williams

Clayton WilliamsImage: youtube, Source: wikipedia

While responding to a question about the weather during his failed bid for Texas Governor, Clayton responded, “Bad weather is like rape, you can’t control it, so you might as well sit back and enjoy it.” He lost.


Osborne Computer Corporation

Osborne Computer CorporationImage: pexels, Source: wikipedia

When Osborne Computers announced their new computer model while still having a warehouse full of the old model, the old model wouldn’t sell anymore and the company went under. Today, this is known as the Osborne Effect.


Malaysia Airlines

Malaysia AirlinesImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In 2014, Malaysian Airlines asked flyers to submit their bucket lists as part of a contest. It was obviously not thought out very well given the fact that 537 people had lost their lives with them that year in 2 crashes.



WMMSImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Back in the 90’s, this Cleveland radio station advertised that they were shutting down on March 31st. Everybody tuned in faithfully, and at midnight…April Fools! Apparently, it didn’t go down with everyone as well as they had hoped.


Thomas Midgely

Thomas MidgelyImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In order to prove that tetraethyl lead (a gasoline additive) was safe, Thomas poured it on his hands and inhaled it for one minute. He was later diagnosed with lead poisoning.


Calvin Klein

Calvin KleinSource: wikipedia

During the 1990’s, Calvin Klein ran advertisements that made it look like a porn director was luring minors into a basement for a photo shoot. Needless to say, this did not go over well, and the ads were quickly pulled.


Hong Kong Tourism Board

Hong Kong Tourism BoardImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In 2003, during the height of the SARS epidemic, Hong Kong ran an ad saying that the city would “take your breath away.”


OJ Simpson

OJ SimpsonImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

He published a book about how he “would have” killed his wife.


Todd Akin

Todd AkinImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

He was poised to beat U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill in a 2012 election when he made his infamous remark about how women who are the victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant. He didn’t win.


Tony Hayward

Tony HaywardImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

When BP’s CEO, Tony Howard, said that he “would like his life back” following the BP spill, it was definitely not taken in a very receptive manner, especially considering that it seemed as though the CEO was making himself into a victim. He was replaced a month later.


Gerald Ratner

Gerald RatnerImage: EG Focus via Flickr, Source: wikipedia

When the CEO of Ratners (a British jeweler) was asked how he could sell his products for so cheap, he replied, “Because they’re total crap.” It was a joke, and everyone already knew that Ratners was low quality, but insulting the customers was a mistake. Ratners ceased to exist shortly thereafter.


Justine Sacco

Justine SaccoSource: wikipedia

Just before a trip to Africa, Justine, the communications director for InterActive Corp, tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Since she was taking off as soon as she tweeted, she had no idea what kind of storm she had created. There was even a hashtag called #HasJustineLandedYet. She was fired shortly thereafter.


Mountain Dew

Mountain DewImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

When Mountain Dew came out with their “Dub The Dew” contest, they invited customers to come up with names for new flavors. They didn’t count on 4chan taking over the contest. Choice number 1 was “Hitler did nothing wrong.”


Barbra Streisand

Barbra StreisandImage: Jonathan Tommy via Flickr, Source: wikipedia

When an aerial photographer was taking pictures of the California coastline to illustrate erosion, Barbra Streisand’s mansion was thrown into the mix. She sued saying it violated her privacy, but this just led to the case blowing up online. It even came to be known as the Streisand Effect (when you try to suppress some information but your efforts backfire).


Amy's Baking Company

Amy's Baking CompanyImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

When Gordon Ramsey came on to do a restaurant makeover for Kitchen Nightmares, he ended up walking out saying the restaurant owners were hopeless. To give you some background (Gordon is not known for being level headed), the owners were a married couple that would constantly upset their customers and even do things like keep the tips from the waitresses. At any rate, they received a lot of negative publicity online following the episode. The couple responded to the publicity very negatively which just exacerbated the backlash. Eventually, the restaurant had to shut down.



AIGImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Right after receiving their government bailout in 2008, AIG hosted a corporate retreat in St. Regis, California for over half a million dollars. Yea, that happened.



PepsiImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In 1992, Pepsi ran a contest in the Philippines. They were handing out $1 million to a lucky winner based on bottle cap numbers. Unfortunately, the winning number wasn’t unique, and there were 800,000 winners. Rioting ensued, Pepsi withdrew all but 2 of its employees, and people even died when a Pepsi truck was firebombed.

SEE ALSO: 25 Greatest Unsolved Mysteries Ever »


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