A number of brands have fallen foul of social media over the last few years, either due to lack of understanding of how information spreads online, or by attempting to manipulate the system and getting caught out.

I've listed ten examples of companies who have suffered PR nightmares online, in most cases the bad publicity has come via social media sites...


After a blogger criticised a flaw in the airline's online booking process, staff from the airline left several childish and insulting comments in response to the post. To make matters worse, after the episode was publicised around the web, the company issued a statement saying that 'it is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy in corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won’t be happening again.'


The video showing Domino's employees adding various unsavoury embellishments to the food they were preparing went viral on YouTube, and was a PR nightmare for the company. The company did what it could by posting a video response on YouTube, though some found the delivery by President Patrick Doyle less than perfect.


A Belkin employee was caught red handed offering to pay other Amazon Mechanical Turk users to write positive reviews of one of its products on the site. These reviews were especially unconvincing given the fact that the router in question had several bad reviews already, making the positives stick out like a sore thumb. The paid reviews have since been removed.

Whole Foods

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey left a bunch of anonymous postings about rival company Wild Oats before being rumbled, causing a great deal of embarrassment for him and his company. Mackey apologised to shareholders afterwards, but the damage was done.


The company was outed in 2006 after a blog chronicling a duo's travels across America while camping in Wal-Mart car parks turned out to have been the work of PR firm Edelman.


After removing books with adult content, including Brokeback Mountain and Lady Chatterly's Lover, from its bestseller lists, Amazon was subjected to a torrent of bad publicity on Twitter and elsewhere. The company blamed a glitch but didn't directly respond on Twitter.


Kodak recently decided to charge an annual fee for storing photos in its online Gallery, and though it claimed to have emailed everyone concerned, some were clearly surprised when their photos started to vanish. Cue lots of bad publicity for the company on Twitter.


US retailer Target got itself some bad publicity in the New York Times last year after dismissing a complaint from a blogger about one of its ads with the phrase: 'we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets'.

Just months before, the company was outed for encouraging Facebook users, who were receiving various freebies, to praise the company on the site.

Neal's Yard

The retailer of organic products pulled out of an online debate as part of The Guardian's 'You ask, they answer' feature. It seems the company didn't like the quaestion concerning the withdrawall of one of its products last year; a homeopathic remedy for malaria.

As pointed out here, this refusal to enagage is not the way to deal with criticism online, and represents a PR failure for the firm.


An example of why companies should own their social media profiles, and monitor sites like Twitter comes from ExxonMobil. Someone calling herself Janet set up an account on the site in the company's name and managed to fool plenty of people before the account was taken down.

Graham Charlton

Published 8 June, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Comments (15)

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That Ryanair one is bizare. At least the others were mistakes but in that instance the company just made it worse!


about 9 years ago



The Ryanair example appears part of a deliberate policy to treat customers with contempt. They are making a virtue of poor customer service, rather like the always full Wong Kei Chinese restaurant in London's West End complete with rude waiters. It shouts cheap and that's the way they want it.

about 9 years ago



Some great examples there. When will companies learn that consumers yield more power than ever as a result of social media.

about 9 years ago


Petros Mavros

All of the above companies are the perfect examples of comapanies that practice Customer  Scare insdead of Customer Care or they are the low cost of their sector. This is where I think that in order to be on Social Media and take good advantage of them you need to first be sure that you are a customer oriented company and offer value for money.

Espacially the service sector and more special travel and tourism have to first abort their low cost policy and adopt a high value policy to be succesfull on Social Media and online PR.

about 9 years ago


Ching Ya

Those are some mind provoking stories. I haven't heard most of them, but it certainly brought up the urgency of having well-maintained, and some expertised in handling the PR. It's a wake up call to all small/big companies who tend to venture themselves in the social networking area. It is a great promotional and info sharing tool. As much social media could build you up, it could easily bring down the company as well.


social media/blogging

about 9 years ago

Jonathan Moody

Jonathan Moody, Freelance at Language4Communications

Many organizations are still struggling to get to grips with an area many consider to be beyond control, irrelevant or both. Regardless of the type of organization, there is a permanent need to regularly listen to key audiences or stakeholders. Once those online conversations reach a certain level, regular monitoring becomes essential in to be less susceptible to suffering the web-spread reputation crises cited above. Once an organization is listening it can move on to acting upon the valuable intelligence that can be extracted from this dialogue and gain substantial competitive advantages.

A good place to start is by reviewing your current agency/supplier roster in market research, direct marketing,advertising, public relations and customer management? What ideas or processes do they have for monitoring and engaging with consumers online? Your suppliers need to become very good at online or if you are already working with online agencies, do they have the range of services and the planning discipline that more established “traditional”agencies have?

about 9 years ago


Mirek Polyniak

@ Andon: The Ryanair one is bizarre - I couldn't agree more :(

It just shows the arrogancy of the company/its management and the lack of understanding how powerful the Net is, esp. in such cases

about 9 years ago



This is a really great top ten list Graham, lots of solid choices.  I completely remember the Domino's debacle, although I think that their real toppings are what deter me from buying and eating their pizzas. Anyone can post their own list to our site http://www.toptentopten.com/. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

about 9 years ago


Mirek Zapletal

One "small" fail from the "web 2.0 business area" could be Last.fm and their absolute lack of communication in a case of new subscription policy.

See the flood of comments at http://blog.last.fm/2009/04/22/radio-subscriptions#comments ... and no response ...

about 9 years ago

Edward Cowell

Edward Cowell, SEO Director at Guava UK

Graham why not follow up with a top ten PR flukes, although I wonder if it may be much harder to find 10 great examples of mistakes that turned into great PR?

I'd nominate iphone factory girl as one that certainly didn't do Apple any harm. http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2008/08/factory-iphone/


about 9 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

That's a good idea, though it might be a harder list to do.

about 9 years ago


Things to do in New Jersey

What about there is not such thing as bad publicity?

In RyanAir case - they use any chance they can get to generate bad PR.

I doubt much of the above (except RyanAir) was on purpose - but they definitely generated puiblicity, and most likely, business.

almost 9 years ago


Martin Bartle, Global Communications and E-commerce Director at Agent Provocateur

I've been taking a look at the Neal's Yard example and it is a little sinister - the pages on the Guardian have been linked to by some classic SEO sites. Looks like someone has done a job on this one for reasons that are perhaps not entirely innocent. Many of the backlinks also come from a rather vocal "bad science" lobby.

over 8 years ago



A great article but is bad publicity not good publicity in most cases? Dave

almost 8 years ago



PR is great when its free and most of it is, all publications need content...Right!

over 5 years ago

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