From Celebs Singing ‘Imagine’ to ‘When That Stimulus Deposit Hits,’ How to Recover From PR Missteps in the Coronavirus Era

As the unprecedented challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic weigh on consumers, any misstep by a brand or public figure can prove detrimental.

More so than ever before, a credible reputation can be just as crucial as immediate revenues for brands and celebrities whose successes are inextricably linked to consumer’s perception of them.

So why do companies continue to find themselves grappling with internal crises amid the larger looming health crisis we are living in now?

Experts say the current situation has created uncharted territories across all industries yielding an abundance of marketing hiccups including tone-deaf social media posts and ill-planned campaigns. And while many are adapting to the times, others are challenged with learning how to strike the right balance. As a result, good intentions have gone bad.

“The decision-making process is hampered,” explained Sandy Lish, co-founder of The Castle Group PR firm. “This is crisis time, everyone is acting in crisis mode, which means everyone is moving fast and making decisions quickly. It’s about context right now as it always should be, but in times like this it’s even more critical.”

From celebrities facing backlash for singing “Imagine” to Fashion Nova’s “When that stimulus deposit hits…” promotion, insiders say the majority of PR controversies sparked during COVID-19 have been preventable.

Here, experts provide guiding principles to follow to help prevent and recover from a crisis:

Be Prepared

Last month, a charitable effort went wrong for Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James apparel label, drawing an onslaught of online criticism online. On April 2, the brand announced it would give away free dresses to teachers as a way of thanking them for their efforts during the coronavirus crisis. But after receiving nearly 1 million requests, Draper James had to contact those who applied to let them know the program was actually a raffle rather than a full-scale giveaway. It also informed shoppers that it only had 250 dresses as part of the contest. Swift backlash ensued from social media users who felt whole moment was a marketing gimmick rather than a sincere effort to give back.

While it’s unclear how the campaign was executed, Erik Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management firm, said missteps such as the one experienced by Draper James could be prevented with a simple team meeting. “Everybody is panicked right now so there’s a lack of preparedness,” he said. “Many don’t have a plan and it’s shown. Do your research. Think about realities before you start a campaign.”

A thorough and productive meeting can easily poke holes in faulty ideas as team members dissect a concept from multiple vantage points and discuss the many ways a well-intended initiative can go wrong.

“You can recover from mostly anything but you’ll take on a lot more damage and lose a lot more money if you don’t prepare in advance. It’s the No. 1 way to save money,” Bernstein added.

Deborah Hileman, president and CEO at the Institute for Crisis Management, said the source of many brand crises is the fact that there’s no crisis management plan in the first place. According to a 2019 study by CS&A International, a specialist risk and crisis management consultancy, 62% companies have crisis plans but only half of those plans have been kept up to date. Meanwhile, 37% of companies have never conducted a crisis exercise before.

“There’s denial in saying, ‘That’s never going to happen to us; we don’t need to spend money planning something that’s likely not going to happen,'” continued Hileman. “Now these organizations are realizing you can’t ignore a remote possibility of [error].”


Rothy’s has also found itself in hot water during the coronavirus outbreak when it rolled out a purchase to donate program in April where five masks were donated for every product sold on its site. The purchase component of the initiative didn’t sit well with consumers, leading the brand to apologize. That admittance of guilt was a key aspect of the brand’s seemingly successful crisis recovery.

“The fastest way to recover is to fall on your sword,” said Bernstein. “Make it right because if people feel like you don’t, they will abandon you.”

Following consumer response, the eco-friendly label pivoted its stance and is working to source 100,000 non-medical masks for a bulk donation, which would not be tied to sales. In addition, Rothy’s donated $20,000 to Direct Relief, with funds going to provide protective masks, exam gloves and isolation gowns to health-care organizations in the United States. It is also dedicating a third of its factory space to the production of face masks.

It’s essential to atone, added Hileman. “This is unprecedented for everyone. People may be more forgiving, but take it a step further. You need get out ahead of it before it’s demanded of you.”


A major pitfall for companies in the era of the coronavirus will be lack of communication. Tone-deafness has proved to be problematic for many celebrities and brands in recent months, whether it comes from an out-of-touch email blast or a flippant comment such as Justin Timberlake’s “24-hour parenting is just not human” remark.

“Everything needs to be under review,” said Lish. “A cardinal rule is to not delete a post, so it’s better to pull something that you’re unsure of than to send something out that can create backlash.”

With amplified sensitivity right now, leaning on consumer sentiment to inform decisions will be critical, added Lish.

For Bernstein, his advice for brands in crisis is to transmit the three “Cs” of credibility: compassion, competence and confidence.

“If you make moves and don’t explain it, it will fall on deaf ears,” he noted.

As long as a brand communicates with honesty, transparency and empathy, experts agree, consumers are often quick to forgive small faux pas.

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