3 Examples of How NOT to Handle Crisis Communication (And What We Can Learn From Them)

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A crisis can happen to any business. Here’s what not to do if and when it happens to you.

It’s an unfortunate fact of business, and of life: bad things do happen.

When something bad happens you have three choices. You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.


Nobody is immune to catastrophe. Any business, on any given day, could be forced to deal with:

  • Server outages
  • Security breaches
  • Getting sued
  • Negative press
  • Leaked sensitive information

And the list goes on and on.

A crisis is never enjoyable to deal with, but the way you deal with it will determine whether it becomes a crippling disaster or an obstacle that you overcome and live to fight another day.

Having a strong crisis communication plan is a great place to start in preparing for the unexpected.

But even the best plans can be painfully tested when they come face to face with reality.

Today, we’re taking a look at five examples of crisis communication fails, and what we can learn from them about what not to do in a business crisis.

3 Cringe-Worthy Examples of Crisis Communication Fails

1) Tesco’s Badly Scheduled Tweet

In 2013, UK grocery store chain Tesco was hit with a shocking scandal: it was alleged that one of Tesco’s suppliers was shipping them horse meat that was being sold as beef in Tesco’s stores.

Soon after the scandal hit, Tesco’s Twitter account let this Tweet—which, amazingly, is still up—fly:

For obvious reasons, this came off as a poorly timed, terrible and insensitive attempt at humor.

But according to Tesco, it wasn’t. The brand’s apology claimed that the Tweet was pre-scheduled and had been written days before the news broke.

Takeaway: This is a danger for any business that schedules social media posts in advance.

Whether you’re hit with your own crisis like Tesco, or an unrelated tragedy hits the news, you don’t want to be the business that’s sending out light-hearted Tweets and pretending that everything is normal.

Most top scheduling tools like Buffer and Edgar offer “Pause” options to pause all scheduled content with a single click, so make sure that your crisis communication plan includes doing this right away.

2) XO Communications’ Tone-Deaf Phone Recording

Davia Temin shared a Story in Forbes of a crisis fail by her internet service provider, XO Communications.

The ISP had recurring outages over a couple of months, and once again, Davia found herself frustrated after 21 hours without internet, and radio silence from XO—on their website and across their social media accounts—about when the issue would be fixed.

So, now I am sitting on the phone for hours waiting for customer service, listening to infernal, “upbeat,” muzak, interspersed by endless messages of: “We’re experiencing a ‘slightly’ longer than normal hold time, and appreciate your patience in waiting,” and “We appreciate your patience and apologize for the unusual delay. Someone will be with you soon.”

Davia Temin, XO Communications Customer

While it may seem like a small deal, it isn’t: in a crisis, your customers are desperate for an acknowledgment that you’re aware of how serious the problem is for them, and assurance that you’re doing everything that you can to make things right.

Trying to hide behind canned recordings of slightly delayed hold times is a fool-proof recipe for making frustrated customers even angrier.

Takeaway: There’s one single word that’s absolutely necessary for your entire team to use during a crisis.

That word is “sorry.”

But you have to mean it.

Whether you’re using a canned reply or a phone recording (if you absolutely, 100% cannot respond to every customer quickly), make sure that your customers know that you’re sincerely sorry, and that you’re working hard to resolve the issue.

3) BP’s Terrible CEO Selfishness

In 2010, tragedy hit the Gulf Coast when a BP-owned oil rig exploded, leading to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, lasting 87 long days.

In a catastrophe like this, there’s nothing a business can say that will make people happy. It’s a terrible disaster no matter how one looks at it.

But there are things that a business can say that make the situation worse.

And BP CEO Tony Hayward did just that when, in an interview nearly two months into the disaster, he said this about his hopes for the residents of the Gulf Coast:

“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives,” Hayward said. “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

Tony Hayward, former CEO, BP

Predictably, this mis-step skyrocketed to the headlines and remained there for weeks until Hayward resigned as CEO.

Takeaway: No matter how badly your business’ crisis is effecting you personally, your customers don’t want to hear about it.

The most important person, to anyone, is themselves.

Crisis communication should always be centered around your customers, and what you’ve done, are doing, and plan to do to make things right for them.

BONUS: Amy’s Baking Company Social Media Meltdown

This might be my favorite crisis communication failure in the history of the internet.

Amy’s Baking Company was a restaurant featured in Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The business was “fired” from the show for being too difficult to work with and refusing to listen to Ramsay.

To put it lightly, the restaurant came off really badly in the show.

Among other things, the owner of the restaurant would kick out any customers who complained about the food, they confiscated their servers’ tips, and much of what they sold was allegedly frozen, store-bought food.

Not long after the show aired, the business received some negative comments on their Yelp and Facebook pages.

Instead of dealing with their negative online reviews the right way, the owners took a bit of a different approach:

Some of the gems are below:

Takeaway: If you ever find yourself behaving the way that this business did, then this blog will not be enough to help you.

For the right way to handle negative online reviews, see our guide.

Are You Ready for a Crisis?

There’s a lot to learn from crisis communication best practices, but there’s also a lot that we can learn from seeing businesses do it wrong.

Analyzing their mistakes can help us avoid making similar ones.

Len Markidan
Len Markidan Len used to head up marketing at Groove. Though he has now moved on to other adventures, he still likes popping in and saying hi every now and then.