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Turning trick to treat: transforming PR nightmares into success stories

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It’s Halloween time, and for businesses and organisations that value their reputations (so, all of them essentially) there can be no scarier or more chilling prospect than a PR disaster.

It was a long time ago, but some of you may remember Gerald Ratner and his speech to the Institute of Directors  that wiped millions off the value of a successful jewellery business which once stood proudly in towns and cities across the UK.

He publicly joked that the reason the company could sell its earrings and sherry decanters so cheaply was because of their poor quality (he used a different phrase for it though). The fallout was legendary, and you no longer see branches of Ratner’s on the high street.

The phrase ‘doing a Ratner’ is still sometimes heard when referring to major business gaffes.

It’s enough to make your blood run cold.

But while it’s rare for such damaging remarks to come from within the organisation concerned, sometimes an unexpected and unforeseen event can certainly put a company in a sticky PR position.

Containing the crisis is one thing but turning it into a PR triumph, well that’s sheer genius. And in recent times we have seen some imaginative responses from brands that have turned tricky situations into treats.

Remember the battle of the caterpillars?

When M&S and Aldi got into a legal spat over Colin and Cuthbert, their respective larva-based celebration cakes, the Aldi team rose to the challenge.

The budget supermarket’s humorous response won over public opinion after M&S launched the legal action against them over an alleged trademark infringement. A series of tweets and the #freecuthbert hashtag soon had people rallying round and supporting Aldi/Cuthbert.

The two retailers settled the conflict and Cuthbert remains on sale to this day.

And what about the time that Coca-Cola found itself in the firing line from footballing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2020?

The Portuguese striker moved two bottles of the company’s product which had been positioned on a press conference table, declaring that everyone should drink water instead.

But the soft drinks giant’s calm and measured response – in which they suggested that people clearly have a choice to consume whichever beverage they choose – turned the tide of public opinion back in their favour.

They even found support from the Russian manager Stanislav Cherchesov, who downed a bottle of Coca-Cola before a press conference – a stunt which attracted massive coverage and effectively levelled the playing field.

And do you remember when KFC ran short of chicken?

Delivery issues resulted in many of the fast-food chain’s outlets not receiving the poultry they needed and having to temporarily close. KFC ran an honest and humorous advertisement apologising for the problem and transposing the letters on a classic KFC bucket to read FCK.

While it wasn’t a funny situation for the business, and its employees and franchisees, the company turned public opinion around with some cheeky humour. The mood changed from anger and mockery to respect for the firm’s willingness to own the mistake and poke fun at itself.

Could a modern PR approach with a frank and humorous angle have turned things around for Ratner’s? We’ll never know. 30 years on, Ratner remains spooked, describing the situation as a permanent scar.

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