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How to learn from PR disasters

It’s now easier than ever for companies to find themselves experiencing far-reaching negative publicity. Customer complaints can go viral through social media in a matter of minutes and if it’s a slow news day, media outlets often fan the flame. It might seem like a public relations disaster can strike any company at any time, but according to Ross Monaghan, Lecturer in Communications at Deakin University, it is possible to learn from the mistakes of others and use a number of organisational tools to protect against bad PR.

The PR sense check

When four people were tragically killed on a water ride at Dreamworld last year, Ardent Leisure, the company that owns the theme park, had to manage a very serious communications crisis. But it was what happened two days later that had people reeling. Monaghan argues that the company made a terrible decision to proceed with its AGM, at which executive bonuses would be discussed and later publicised. The media labelled it terribly insensitive. Monaghan suggests that quite often prioritising profits over people is a recipe for PR disaster. ‘When companies lose sight of the customer and doing a good job and focus on making more money or covering up issues, that’s when problems begin,’ he says.

The key to avoiding PR disasters is to have a strong sense of ethical and corporate social responsibility, Monaghan explains. ‘If Ardent Leisure had put that decision through the “is this the right thing to do?” filter, they would have realised it wasn’t,’ he says.

Similarly he highlights the recent incident in which United Airlines staff called police and had a man dragged from a flight that was overbooked. Later United admitted it wanted to give the seats to employees instead of the paying customers.  ‘If you look at this in an ethical way, the right thing to do is to look after your customers,’ Monaghan says. Had they focused on customer welfare instead of the bottom line, they, like Ardent Leisure, could have avoided the negative publicity.

'The key to avoiding PR disasters is to have a strong sense of ethical and corporate social responsibility.'

Ross Monaghan,
Lecturer in Communications, Deakin University

Steering clear of disaster

Sometimes, there are early signs that a PR disaster is brewing. For example, the Victorian Government had plans to build a youth detention centre in Werribee South in early 2017, but the community responded to the announcement with fierce protests.

‘They (the Victorian Government) said they were wrong. It’s sensible to listen to the community. Too often organisations try to tough it out and it very rarely works,’ Monaghan explains. As a result, the location of the detention centre was moved further away from homes and the negative press ceased.

Monaghan points out that in order to reverse a PR disaster, companies should take responsibility for what’s happened. ‘When company spokespeople say ‘we were wrong, we’re sorry’, people will often accept that. They don’t expect organisations to be 100 per cent perfect all the time,’ he points out.

Navigating PR in the social media world

Sometimes PR disasters can be a result of a bad judgement call within a company’s communications team. In 2011, the Qantas communications team launched a competition asking customers to tweet about their dream luxury inflight experience for the chance to win a first class gift pack using the hashtag #QantasLuxury. Immediately, customers began tweeting about the simple luxury of basic customer service.

For example:

My #QantasLuxury experience would be no matter what time or duration of the flight a proper meal is served, a cookie is not a meal, it’s a joke!


#QantasLuxury? 1. Plane takes off/arrives on time; 2. Baggage delivered promptly. This used to be called #QantasService

Soon the hashtag was trending for all of the wrong reasons, but Monaghan says, ‘in the scheme of things, a hashtag PR disaster is something an airline would prefer, rather than some of the other things that can go wrong.’ He points out that a digital PR disaster is the same as any other: more often than not, the customer is not at the centre of the decision-making process. Instead the focus is on driving publicity or profits.

‘Every decision they make needs to be focused on the customers. Organisations that do that don’t face these PR disasters,’ he concludes.

To get an up-to-date insight into what it’s like working in PR, read: What’s it really like to be a Public Relations Manager.

Want to drive positive public relations for a business? Enrol in a Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations) at Deakin University.

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Ross Monaghan
Ross Monaghan

Lecturer in Communication, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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