What to do if your company gets bad publicity

You can’t always avoid negative publicity. Here’show to be smart about managing the aftermath


From the entrepreneurs who’ve been there to the PR professionals who help them through, we asked the experts how to stop a bad publicity drama becoming an all-out media crisis

Whether it’s an unfounded rumour, a problem with one of your products or an internal crisis being played out in the press, knowing how to handle negative publicity can nip potentially catastrophic situations in the bud – or even enable you to turn them around completely. Here’s our guide to planning for and dealing with a media crisis.

Preparation

The worst time to prepare for a crisis is when you’re in the middle of one.  Your plan should involve assessing all the things that could go wrong in your business, says Diana Soltmann, CEO of PR firm Flagship Consulting. She explains:  “You need to imagine the worst case scenario – your product fails, your data leaks, your office, restaurant or factory is closed and the press get to hear about it. Who would your spokesperson be and what would they say?”

 

Designating someone who is comfortable talking to the press beforehand eliminates the possibility of conflicting accounts or inconsistencies, which will only serve to remove credibility from your side of the story.  

“People always think it has to be the MD or chairman, but actually the person who comes across the best in front of the camera is often the best idea,” says Zef Eisenberg, founder and president of sports nutrition brand Maximuscle, who recommends that this spokesperson then undergoes some media training.

“Train your staff (or yourself) to avoid rising to the bait,” Eisenberg says.  “In heated situations, journalists may try and provoke you into the response they want, and you have to be careful not to swear or say anything that could inflame the situation or paint you in a bad light.”

Should you respond?

“Often a response will lend stories credibility that they probably didn’t have in the first place,” says Peter Roberts, senior associate director at PR company Hill & Knowlton and former head of communications for BBC News. Roberts weighs up the severity of the allegation that has been made against the credibility of the publication or reporter who is making it when deciding whether or not to take action.

“The danger is that if that a press comment appears in a so-called quality paper, like The Times or the FT, it is seen to be qualified, and that soundbite will then be copied into all the other papers,”  agrees Eisenberg.

It’s not just the nationals or major media organisations you need to worry about, either. There are some highly influential operators on the web. One Tweet from the wrong person can be broadcast to thousands of your customers in seconds.

Round one

“One thing I have learnt is you definitely don’t want to bury your head in the sand,” says Eisenberg. “Assuming the negative PR is not justified, you need to get the boxing gloves on and get your message across. ” A strong advocate of the proactive approach, he recommends jumping on inaccurate comments quickly. “I’m talking within 24 hours,” he clarifies.  “Call up the journalist, speak to the editor and tell them if it’s not correct.”

No journalist worth their salt will want to publish something that’s incorrect, and if this happens you may want to ask for a retraction – or correction at least. Likewise, if you feel that a piece is defamatory, it’s worth seeking legal advice. However, libel actions can be notoriously expensive for everyone involved.

What’s more, third parties are only too happy to embellish an existing story, warns Soltmann. “Citizen reporting and instant photography, and of course social media, means the press and the public have rapid access to all kinds of sources that can remain anonymous,” she says.

Ifsomething is of particular public interest, the chances are you will have a number of journalists contacting you. “If you’re in a situation where things start to get out of hand, you should be recording all calls and all interviews,” advises Eisenberg.

Setting it straight

By failing to respond to a serious allegation, you risk losing control of the story. “Have a considered response out in good time before the agenda is shaped by others – the media or your competitors,” says Roberts. “You’ve got to fill the vacuum before your detractors do.”

If disaster strikes, Soltmann recommends issuing a statement to the media and on your website, which will typically reassure your customers that you’re taking matters seriously and setting in place investigations or processes to deal with whatever has happened. Whether further action is then required depends on the severity of the allegation, she adds. “Sometimes a carefully selected one-on-one interview can help you to get your side of the story heard.”

Essentially, if you don’t talk to the media, you risk inaccuracies and misconceptions. “Once a story has been printed it is difficult to change perception as it is ‘out there’,” says Soltmann. “The saying  ‘it takes 10 years to build a reputation and 10 minutes to destroy one’ is true.”

Press statements that don’t have any substance are an equally ill-advised move. All the phrase ‘no comment’ usually achieves is the indication that you’ve got something to hide. It’s a lesson PR professional Neil Hunter learned from experience when he began working for a property company. Hunter says the business would send someone round to value a house, then offer roughly 75% of the ‘value’ in cash the next day.

“I told them that, given the nature of their business, they needed a crisis communications strategy,” he recalls. Although the directors dismissed the idea, he trusted his instincts and started working on one anyway.

Two weeks later, he received a call from BBC’s Watchdog. He had two choices: apologise and change the business model, or defend it. He opted for the latter. “Selling a house can be expensive, and you’re not going to get someone to buy your house the next day on the open market, so I argued that it was a fair proposition,” he says. The approach paid off. It transpired that this was the second report the programme had run on the company, he adds. In the first, several months previously, the directors refused to comment and the business received an  “absolute lashing”.

Responding to a negative allegation sooner rather than later comes with one major caveat, however. Always be sure of the facts before you open your mouth. Giving definitive answers based on assumptions will almost certainly come back to bite you on the backside. “Never try and cover anything up or even worse lie,” says Soltmann.  “The truth will always come out and the reputation of the organisation or individual will be tarnished forever.”

Instead, be straight with the media. If you cannot disclose information because of client confidentiality, legal issues or simply because you don’t know yet, you’re better off saying so.

Opportunity knocks?

Not all negative stories have to spell disaster. In fact, assuming the initial media uproar is unjust, this can actually give you a platform to not only rebut the allegation in question, but to tell your full story too.

“My experience is, with the correct approach, there’s no such thing as bad PR,”  insists Eisenberg. In the early days of Maximuscle, he invited a group of journalists into the business in response to allegations about sports supplements in the press.

“Instead of issuing a press release, where journalists will just copy down soundbites, let them look at everything and ask you every question they could possibly want to. Then there’s no misunderstanding and no secrets being held back,” he says.

Every chance to tell your side of the story is an opportunity to turn the situation into a positive. This particular exercise resulted in substantial positive coverage for Maximuscle. “A lot of small businesses never get the chance to tell their story to the national press,”  adds Eisenberg.

“You might turn around and say, ‘Not only is this allegation untrue, but we’d also like to reassure consumers that we do the following 10 quality control tests. So not only is this not correct, but we’re the best in the business at what we do.'”

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