Finding the humour in a crisis: how some business disasters ended up being hilarious

by | May 3, 2023

One of my favourite ways to help small-business owners and managers is by getting them better prepared to face the inevitable business shocks/crises/disasters/mistakes they will encounter. There’s no avoiding them, they just happen.

Of course, the international poster child of business crises is the COVID-19 global pandemic. We will still be seeing the effects of that disruption for the next decade, even if another pandemic doesn’t come along. Then there are the natural disasters we are all too familiar with – floods, fires, droughts, cyclones, snowstorms, earthquakes, volcanos…

Just thinking about all these business crisis possibilities is enough to give us all sleepless nights. That’s why I wrote Small Company, Big Crisis – to help SME owners and managers do that preparation, and know what to do when a crisis hits – and get some sleep.

But some business crises/accidents/mistakes have a humorous side as well. Maybe not so funny for the business leaders involved who are responsible for the dollars and/or reputation lost, but from the sidelines it’s hard to not have a giggle.

Here are two of my favourite examples.

Oprah’s Microsoft Surface vs iPad

Ads are supposed to promote a product, not lampoon it. Unfortunately, that was exactly the outcome when Microsoft recruited media megastar Oprah as the face of a marketing campaign to promote the Microsoft Surface computer. Oprah duly sent out a tweet about how much she loved the Surface, “Gotta say love that Surface!”

Glitch. Said tweet was clearly marked as being sent from her iPad.

I couldn’t find any dollar figures associated with that oops moment, but there was inevitably some reputational damage and ridiculing to follow. No doubt there were some hastily-convened crisis meetings at Microsoft HQ!

The great UK chicken crisis

In February 2018, KFC, one of the largest fast-food chains in the world, faced its ultimate, nightmare crisis. It ran out of chicken. The chain had to close more than half its stores which created a significant financial loss. Then there were the chicken fans (a.k.a customers), who couldn’t get their favourite fast food fix.

Of course, those fans were upset – even angry – and inevitably some took to social media to vent their feelings. But you have to admit that the thought of a fast food chain based on chicken running out of chicken is at least slightly amusing!

KFC, to its credit, injected just the right amount of humour in its marketing response to the crisis. (They were also very transparent). The result? KFC averted a potential PR meltdown that would have accompanied the financial losses.

Lessons from a crisis

As these two stories clearly illustrate, a business crisis can come from anywhere, and even the biggest, (ostensibly) most organised companies on the planet can fall victim. Some are even funny.

But there are any number of business hiccups that are totally foreseeable – those natural disasters I spoke about earlier are no surprise. Then there are problems where we can reliably estimate how likely they are to happen. Divorce in a family business is depressingly common as a reason for business failure, and about one-third of Australian marriages end in divorce.

These are the things we need to have thought about before they happen.

Now it’s your turn

Have you experienced, or heard of, a business crisis that has a funny side? I’m presuming that you will only offer examples that didn’t involve harm to people or animals, or probably even equipment or infrastructure. I would love to hear your stories.

In the meantime, take a few minutes to check how you are to face a business crisis – funny or otherwise?

This post first appeared on on May 3, 2023.