Balancing the Use of Humor in PR Efforts to Avoid Crises

Humor is powerful in public relations. A joke or meme can capture attention and build rapport, making brands endearing to their audience. Duolingo, the language learning app, is a prime example with its sassy owl and pop culture references that have made them social media stars.

Using humor in PR requires finesse though, and brands must understand the risks involved. It can be compared to a tightrope walk, navigating the complexities is crucial. While humor can add excitement, a poorly thought out joke can lead to a PR nightmare. Therefore, brands must approach with caution.

Misreading the room

Humor is subjective. What one person finds hilarious, another might find offensive or insensitive. Failing to understand the audience’s cultural nuances, values, and sense of humor can lead to disastrous misinterpretations. If a brand starts targeting Gen Z using outdated boomer jokes, the audience is going to cringe.

Trivializing the serious

Using humor to deflect a critical issue can have disastrous consequences for a brand. Take the example of a company experiencing a data breach and trying to make light of it through memes. The result would be a loud public outcry. During crises, it is crucial for brands to prioritize authenticity and transparency instead of using humor as a distraction.

Brand dissonance

Humor that clashes with a brand’s core values or image can create dissonance and confusion. A high-end jewelry brand cracking self-deprecating jokes might appear inauthentic and damage their perception of luxury. Humor needs to resonate with the overall brand identity.


Humor based on stereotypes or discriminatory jokes is not only harmful but also career-ending. In today’s socially conscious world, brands cannot afford to perpetuate harmful narratives through humor. Jokes about race, gender, or sexual orientation are never acceptable.

One-trick pony

While humor can be a powerful tool, relying solely on it for engagement is unsustainable. Humor fatigue is real, and constant attempts at being funny can backfire. A well-rounded PR strategy needs diverse tactics that complement, not replace, humor.

Duolingo’s example

Humor in PR requires planning and execution. Duolingo targets a young, tech-savvy demographic and incorporates memes and internet humor into their brand. The owl represents their brand voice, being playful, relatable, and self-deprecating. Offensive jokes and stereotypes are avoided. 

Duolingo’s humor includes pop culture references, self-deprecating jabs, and wordplay, aligning with their educational mission. The owl’s antics are just one part of their communication strategy.

They also provide language learning content, engage in conversations, and build a community. Humor adds flavor to their brand without replacing substance.

Using humor in PR

Humor is a double-edged sword. There are a few key principles brands should always follow. Understand the audience inside and out to avoid cultural faux pas. Humor should align with the core values and image.

Consider the situation’s gravity. Humor during a crisis is usually inappropriate. Avoid stereotypes, discrimination, and offensive jokes. Humor is a tool, not a crutch. Use it strategically and sparingly. Track the effectiveness of any humor and adjust based on audience feedback.

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