Managing Bad Publicity

Many businesses and organisations mistakenly think they are immune from bad publicity, which is why when a negative news story does rear its ugly head, it often has a devastating effect. A badly handled customer complaint, redundancies or an accident in the workplace can all result in a bad news story – and failing to prepare for all eventualities is a recipe for disaster.

Effective communication with all interested parties including staff and customers – not just journalists – is key to managing a crisis and honesty is nearly always the best policy. Lying or trying to cover up the facts will only make matters worse and could irrevocably damage your reputation which can take years to build up but minutes to destroy! Following the birth of the internet and social media, bad news travels faster than ever and knows no geographical boundaries, so it’s crucial to respond quickly to give yourself the best chance of success.

As an agency, we’ve helped numerous organisations to develop crisis communications plans and manage bad news stories. As several of us are former journalists we know what will make a good and conversely a bad news story, what information journalists will be looking for and how they will ‘treat’ the story. Based on our experience we’ve put together a checklist to put you on the front foot and minimise reputational damage.

  • Identify potential risks
  • Put a procedure in place
  • Take your lead from others
  • Counter any inaccuracies
  • Avoid saying no comment
  • Be prepared to say you are sorry
  • Learn from your mistakes
  • Rebuild your reputation

If you want to guard against becoming the next Oxfam, the best advice I can give you is to prepare for the worst. Hopefully it won’t happen, but you’ll feel a lot more confident having a tried and tested crisis comms procedure in place. Analyse your business or organisation carefully to identify any flash points and ask yourself how you can mitigate these. For example, if your employees work with heavy machinery do you need a stricter health and safety policy? It’s also worth examining your suppliers to ensure there are no weak links in the chain.

Once you know what the risks are, think about how you would respond and put a procedure in place for managing the situation. Who would be the first point of contact for media or other external enquiries and who would be responsible for keeping the relevant parties (staff, customers, suppliers etc) informed should the worst happen? Think about who you need to communicate with and in what order. Also, make sure everyone within your organisation is aware of what the procedure is and their role.

Are there others in your industry or outside who have managed a similar situation well? What did they do that worked, and how can you use their experience to your advantage? 

Social media is a great listening tool. You can listen to what people are saying about you and gauge public opinion. Don’t be scared of correcting false or misleading information but try to avoid getting into a public slanging match online. Invite disgruntled customers, for example, to inbox you their contact details so you can investigate the matter in further detail and respond in full by email or over the phone.

Passing up the opportunity to respond to any claims made against you is never advisable as it looks as if you have something to hide. This is your opportunity to put your side of the story across. If you don’t feel confident speaking to journalists or giving an interview in person, prepare a written statement instead, but keep it concise and to the point. If you really can’t say anything because of an ongoing court case for example, explain the reason why.

If you are at fault, holding your hands up and apologising can help to quickly diffuse a situation. Say you’re sorry and explain what you are doing to rectify the situation. Taking responsibility and addressing the issue can help to rebuild your reputation and put your company in a positive light.

Once the dust has settled review what happened and how you dealt with it to see if there’s anything you could have done better. Does your customer complaints procedure hold water or is there room for improvement?

Look for opportunities to generate good news stories by supporting a local charity or giving back to your community. Build positive relationships with the media and your customers, employers, suppliers etc. so that should something else untoward happen, they will have some goodwill towards you which means they’re more likely to show empathy should you make a mistake again. If in doubt, call in a PR agency who will be able to advise you on the best course of action!