The Worst- and Best-Handled Crisis Communications of 2017



CrisisResponsePro today unveils its third-annual list of the worst- and best-handled crisis communications. CrisisResponsePro tracks and evaluates the communications aspects of thousands of crises throughout the year through its Knowledge Exchange content area, CrisisWire, and database of more than 12,000 public statements by individuals, companies, and other organizations. Our annual list is our take on the worst and best, based on analysis of high-profile crisis matters in 2017 measured against CrisisResponsePro’s knowledge base of best practices in crisis communications.

“With the election of Donald Trump as president, this year really saw an extraordinary number of high-profile crises in the political area,” said Jim Haggerty, founder and CEO of CrisisResponsePro. “That includes many apt responses from companies and others on the ‘best’ side. On the other hand, Harvey Weinstein’s response to sexual-harassment allegations, which ushered in finger pointing at dozens of other men, was hands-down the year’s worst.”




  1. Harvey Weinstein (sexual harassment)

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s statement in response to allegations of sexual harassment and assault was, in our opinion, one of the worst ever. Weinstein laid out a bizarre defense that he “came of age in the ’60s and ’70s” and tried to change the subject by invoking liberal causes he wanted to pursue. Then we learned of efforts by Weinstein, his company, and lawyers to kill off the offending stories. The proper response (for the company at least) would have been to fire Weinstein quickly — quicker than it did. But après Weinstein, le deluge. Dozens of other men were accused of sex harassment and issued (for the most part) equally bad communications responses. These include Kevin Spacey, Richard Dreyfuss, and Louis C.K. This year may be forever known as The Year of the Sex Harasser.

  1. United Airlines (passenger dragging)

We believe United’s abysmal handling of the April 9 incident in which a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was dragged off a flight will go down in history as one of the most notorious corporate crises of all time. The company wavered on the tone and content of its messages, going from defensive to — after it and its stock got pummeled — prostrate. Its early missteps, including apologizing only for the “overbook situation,” clearly contributed to the crisis’ severity. It took three public statements and one internal one until United got it right. In a recent study, 30 percent of respondents said they were still unwilling to fly with United seven months after the incident. The smartest thing the airline did was settle with Dao in less than three weeks.

  1. Equifax (data breach)

Equifax was rightly flogged for its terrible handling of the communications around its cybersecurity incident, which was said to expose personal data of as many as 143 million people in the U.S. The credit-scoring company’s first messages made clear it didn’t think the situation was a big deal (consumers disagreed). CEO Rick Smith looked positively bored in a video message. The company didn’t announce the breach until Sept. 7, six weeks after its discovery. Massive complaints rolled in about the website it set up. Equifax didn’t have a team to return reporters’ calls in a timely fashion. The only positive: The company made a move that may become a best practice after calamitous corporate crises — it fired CEO Smith just weeks after the breach announcement.

  1. Uber (toxic culture)

It seemed this year that Uber’s very existence was a crisis. The ride-hailing company’s two biggest — and related — problems were its toxic culture and its CEO, Travis Kalanick. After former Uber software engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post describing rampant and winked-at sex harassment, the company was suddenly scared straight. The mess revealed a desperate need for in-house systems to detect problems before they blow up into major crises. Alas, at the all-hands meeting to announce the adoption of independent recommendations for change, a director told a sexist joke (he soon resigned over it). CEO Kalanick resigned in June. And now we know that the culture allowed some people in the company to think it was okay to cover up a data breach and to possibly steal trade secrets.

  1. Facebook (Russian advertising)

Facebook’s response to its Russian ad crisis — ads were placed on the network to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election — has been the typical “drip, drip, drip crisis, as in: “Here’s a little information … please just go away … okay, we’ll tell you more.” After the election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was “a crazy idea” to suggest that Facebook might have influenced the election. In July, the social-networking giant said it had “seen no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.” But in September, it admitted it found 470 profiles linked to Russian agents that bought about 3,000 such political ads before election day last year. Facebook responded the way it often does when faced with a problem: It said it would hire people to monitor the spots. Founder Zuckerberg walked back his previous comments. All in all, not an impressive effort.


Dishonorable mentions go to: The Fyre Festival organizers for a communications response almost as disastrous as the failed event itself; The Walt Disney Co. for banning the Los Angeles Times from movie screenings because of a negative series of articles on the company; and Arkema Group for its overly scientific and impersonal communications concerning its flooded plant in Texas during Hurricane Harvey.




  1. Corporate America (Trump travel ban)

We’ve never before included a group of companies in our worst/best list, but Corporate America was impressively united and strong in its denunciation of President Donald Trump’s January executive order curbing travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. Tempting a Trump twitter reaction, the companies emphasized in their statements the importance of immigration to the country’s history and to their corporate missions. That was especially so in the technology sector. “We need to keep this country safe, but we should do that by focusing on people who actually pose a threat,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said. Reed Hastings of Netflix was more forceful: “Trump’s actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all.”

  1. PwC (Academy Awards mix-up)

PwC, the U.S. affiliate of PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been counting the Oscar votes for more than 80 years. So when, for the first time, it made a mistake — its partner handed the presenter the wrong card for the best-picture award — it was seen as a major blunder. PwC took the situation seriously; instead of attending post-award parties, it hunkered down to figure out what went wrong and apologized. The day after the Feb. 26 ceremony, U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan gave several apologetic interviews with media outlets, and that night the company put out another statement with more detail. “Last night we failed the academy,” it said. The firm took the blame without excuses. It eventually announced that the two partners who had been working the awards (one of whom may have caused the problem by distractedly tweeting backstage) would no longer do so.

  1. Nordstrom (Ivanka Trump)

On Feb. 2, Bloomberg reported that Nordstrom was dropping Ivanka Trump’s fashion line due to poor sales. That news came after calls for a boycott of the Trump merchandise, but the real reason was that the retailer has a policy of nixing its worst-performing brands each year. That didn’t satisfy Donald Trump. He lashed out at the company in a tweet, complaining that it treated his daughter “so unfairly.” Yet, the company’s stock price actually rose. Controversy continued and on Feb. 8, Nordstrom said it had told the Ivanka Trump company about its decision in early January and reiterated that it wasn’t personal, simply business. Two weeks after the flap, Nordstrom’s overall favorable rating remained at 46 percent, according to one study, though dissatisfaction doubled among the president’s supporters. “The uproar seemed to dissipate quickly,” Bloomberg wrote.

  1. Tiki Brand (Charlottesville protests)

After white supremacists carried Tiki Brand torches during their August demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, the company was vehement and righteous in rejecting any association with their cause. According to Vox, the company had monitored social media, saw the negative reaction to its connection to the marches, and knew it had to respond. It did so by posting a simple, 60-word message on Facebook. It disassociated itself from the protesters and said it was “saddened and disappointed.” “Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard,” the company said. Facebook users shared the message more than 10,000 times. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with some commenters noting that the company took a harder stance against racism than the White House did.

  1. Chobani (Alex Jones attack)

In April, shock-jock conspiracy theorist Alex Jones accused yogurt maker Chobani of bringing crime and disease to Twin Falls, Idaho, where the company has a plant. Right wingers had long targeted Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya for hiring refugees and for promoting refugee rights. The articles on Jones’ Infowars site gave rise to a boycott of the yogurt maker. Ulukaya apparently had had enough, and hit on a compelling communications response: He sued Jones and Infowars, even though it’s a fringe player. The lawsuit garnered a ton of media coverage. Jones vowed to fight back (“We will defeat these people”), but less than a month after Chobani sued, he retracted the stories and apologized. “I regret that we mischaracterized Chobani, its employees, and the people of Twin Falls, Idaho, the way we did,” he said.


Honorable mentions go to: General Motors for its calm, factual response to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 3 tweet demanding it make its Chevy Cruz in the United States (it does); Dippin’ Dots for its riposte to then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s criticisms of the ice-cream snacks; and Denver Public Schools for its handling of video surfacing of cheerleaders being forced to do severely painful splits.

Image Credit: Rasdi Abdul Rahman/Shutterstock

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