Five of the most infamous corporate PR disasters, as Chartwells faces school meals fury

Naomi Ackerman
·4 min read
<p>Chartwells provides meal boxes to parents of children eligible for free school meals (PA)</p> (PA)

Chartwells provides meal boxes to parents of children eligible for free school meals (PA)


Headlines this week have been dominated by coverage of “unacceptable” free school meal boxes provided by a company called Chartwells.

The education sector catering firm behind the now-infamous boxes - the contents of which were Tweeted out by an enraged mother, and which were slammed by campaigning footballer Marcus Rashford - is a subsidiary of FTSE 100 catering giant Compass Group.

Chartwells has already apologised for the quantity of food provided having “fallen short in this instance”. Children and families minister Vicky Ford has said the firm’s boss, Charlie Brown, has promised the firm has “taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels” and "will ensure schools affected are compensated”. It is also to provide additional food in line with topped-up Government funding, including breakfasts.

After seeing a small 0.5% hit to its share price on Wednesday, Compass Group, which reported revenues of £20.2 billion last year, has weathered the storm. Its share price is up 1.7% today.

But there is reputational damage from a scandal like this one, which has seen Chartwells - and to a lesser extent Compass Group - hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Priti Patel said today that Chartwells should be "ashamed of themselves".

Here we take a look at some of the other times big companies to have become household names in ways that left their PR people tearing out hair…


This week is not the first time the international catering giant has found itself under scrutiny.

Compass faced public backlash in 2006 after Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign – they were responsible for the nutritionally lacking turkey twizzlers.

The affair both caused long term damage to Compass’s reputation and led to an overhaul of school meal provision. The firm was also implicated in the 2013 scandal over horse meat being found in supermarket foodstuffs, and back in 2008 another of its subsidiaries, Eurest Dining Services, told Canadian authorities that it had found traces of listeria in food it had served at Ontario prisons.

Despite all this, the firm has continued to secure contracts across sectors and around the world, and is one of the FTSE’s largest companies.


The online fashion firm was splashed over the front pages this summer for all the wrong reasons.

The firm became embroiled in scandal after allegations emerged that some of its Leicester-based suppliers paid workers below the minimum wage, and that workers were operating in unsafe conditions.

As the Standard’s Jim Armitage noted today, the scandal “scarred the reputation of British business”.

After public outcry, the company launched a reputation recovery plan. It began an independent review, which found a number of areas where the group could improve corporate governance. It has since hired legal heavyweight Sir Brian Leveson to give independent oversight of the retailer's "agenda for change" plan, made a main board director responsible for ethical sourcing, and invested heavily in monitoring suppliers.


Back in 2018, the clothing retailer published an online catalogue in which a young black boy wore a green hoodie bearing the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle”.

It led to protests being staged outside H&M stores, and the firm apologised.

Then last summer, the Swedish multinational’s subsidiary, the clothing store & Other Stories, came under attack for using a racial slur to describe one of its products.

H&M boss Helena Helmersson apologised again at the time, saying: "We must improve representation and continue to educate ourselves."

The company also said it would be undertaking conscious and unconscious bias training for employees.


In 2010 BP’s then-boss, Tony Hayward, was giving a statement top reporters in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 people and poisoned local wildlife. It was the worst oil spill in US history, and a true environmental disaster.

While giving the statement, Hayward said: "There's no-one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back.”

The comment led to mass outrage, and BP receiving even more bad press. It also arguably cost Hayward his job.


We had to include the almost-iconic PR disaster of Gerald Ratner.

In 1991 the jeweller was in charge of his listed family-run firm, which had nearly 900 high street shops, when he told people at a business dinner that he was able to sell wares at low prices “because it’s total crap”.

The comments were leaked, led to a bad publicity blitz, cost the company millions of pounds and led to Ratner’s replacement and a firm name change.

The incident became so famous that causing your company a big PR gaffe has become knows as “doing a Ratner”.

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