Here is a list of the top 7 "PR disasters of 2011." Regular readers know I have some issues with the term "PR disaster" as I noted here and here and here, the latter being in reference to the Netflix fiasco, which made the top 7 list.
Certainly, each of the examples listed created negative publicity for the organizations and people involved, though publicity and public relations are not one in the same. But to label them PR disasters in some ways trivializes the poor decisions and improper actions of these organizations and their leaders.
To me, a public relations crisis is when your response to a problem, and in particular your communications strategy, makes the situation worse. Netflix is an example of a company with a PR crisis and a genuine crisis -- which I define as the failure of an organization to carry out its basic mission or fulfill its responsibilities to its stakeholders.
Technically, Penn State's response to the allegations of child sex abuse against Jerry Sandusky, and the alleged cover-up by other university officials, was a PR crisis under my definition, because the university's response made things worse. Yet the worst of what the university and its leaders did was not harming the institution's image -- a byproduct of their actions -- but failing to intervene to keep more children from being victimized.
Remember, public relations is not merely about boosting the image of your organization. It is about counseling leadership to make decisions that are in the best interest of both the organization and the public, and figuring out how to reconcile these interests when they are in conflict. We all remember the foot-in-mouth disease suffered by BP CEO Tony Hayward during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. His insensitive comments made a bad situation worse. But the real problem was the millions of gallons of oil floating in the ocean, and all the kind words in the world weren't going to make that go away.