Public Relations: How Should You Handle Bad News?
Knowing how to avoid a scandal can make a big difference. Guido Mieth / Getty Images
By Guy Bergstrom
Updated November 26, 2016
If all you had to do was talk about good news, public relations would be easy. But public figures — politicians and professional athletes, actors and authors — inevitably must deal with bad news, controversy, and scandals.
This series of posts can help you respond to bad news in whatever form it may take. Why do certain negative stories disappear after a few days while others linger for weeks or months?
What key mistakes did public figures recently make when confronted by bad news and scandals, and how could they have avoided it?
- Handling Bad News and Scandals
Bad news is inevitable. It happens to everybody and every organization. But what turns bad news into a scandal? The old saying in journalism is, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” Reporters hate mysteries. If they think somebody is stonewalling them or lying, they’ll dig and dig forever. It’ll become a crusade to them, a point of principle.
- 4 Ways to Respond to Bad Press
There are different types of bad stories. Each requires a different type of response. What you do will be different when a bad story is factually wrong versus a matter of opinion. And you should react differently when criticized by the public compared to a professional pundit or critic.
- Defending Against Rumors, Lies, and Propaganda
Bad news isn’t the worst thing you can face. Disasters happen. But rumors, lies, and propaganda aren’t the normal kind of bad news. They’re much worse. You have to respond differently.
- 3 Key Lessons from the Charlie Sheen PR Debacle
We are naturally attracted to mayhem. Humans are also hardwired to care about celebrities and public figures. So when professional athletes, politicians or rock stars self-destruct, people naturally pay attention to the celebrity train wreck. Charlie Sheen’s fiery wreckage certainly caught our attention.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminates His Good Public Image
He had it all: governor of the biggest state in the union, a movie star known worldwide by his first name — or late name — and family man who’d married a Kennedy. But the higher they soar, the harder they crash and burn. Arnold Schwarzenegger bypassed PR Purgatory and went straight to Celebrity Hell after it came out that he fathered a child with one of his staff and kept it secret for more than a decade.
- China’s PR blunder with the Nobel Peace Prize
If you don’t want reporters covering a story, the worst thing in the world you could do is try to kill it. Nothing drives journalists crazier than being told they can’t cover a story, or that whatever you write will never be seen by readers because state censors won’t allow it. Censorship and secrecy are the twin pillars of evil in every newsroom. But that’s what China did when dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
- Weinergate: The Fall of a Promising Politician
How does a random photo on Twitter become fodder for the scandal that might bring down a member of Congress — a man who many expected to be the next mayor of New York City? Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) had it all: a beautiful wife who works for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a promising career in Congress, a great way with sound bites and a growing presence on television. A single tweet started to unravel it all.
- Jorge Posada: Why Pro Athletes Can’t Be Seen as Quitters
Why was it such a big deal when Yankees veteran Jorge Posada took himself out of a baseball game and talked to the press about it? Posada broke a few rules of sports, and of public relations. Big rules. Sports PR is all about what you do, not what you say. Actors, authors, and politicians, they get to use words. They can use all three parts of rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos. Professional athletes have to rely on ethos, on communicating with the public by their actions first. The words come second, if at all.
- Case Study: The LeBron James PR Disaster
In the summer of 2010, LeBron James had the world by the tail. He was considered the best NBA player to never win a title, if not the best outright. And then he blew it. In an epic public relations disaster, his free agency and switch to the Miami Heat was mishandled in a spectacular way. He went from spotless hero to villain in the eyes of many, and there was no reason why this had to happen.
- Case Study: Lessons Learned from LeBron James and the Miami Heat
LeBron James and the Miami Heat could have avoided the publicity disaster that happened when he switched from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat. Here’s how: (1) Staying humble. (2) Delaying and avoiding the media spotlight. (3) Focusing on the team.
The 9 Golden Rules for Dealing With Bad Publicity
Posted July 9, 2013
Sometimes, bad publicity is inevitable. Even when you and your organization behave responsibly, you always run the small risk of an unexpected PR disaster. In the information age, bad publicity can reach the masses before you can even mount a defense. The only thing worse than having your image tarnished in the public light after you’ve done everything within your power to protect yourself is to find out you’re the one who caused the disaster. For every rogue employee saying something stupid to the media, there’s a poor senior-level decision being made.
The impetus for this post is brought on by the discussion du jour of the unprecedented act of self-immolation that the Scotsdale, Arizona based restaurant “Amy’s Baking Company” recently committed. Following the airing of a disastrous episode of “Kitchen Nightmares,” which portrayed the restaurant in a scathing light, the owners took to social media to respond to the tidal wave of criticism. And their response was, from my PR perspective, ill-advised. Mashable has the full rundown of what went wrong, if you haven’t checked Reddit lately. But this article isn’t about fixing some bakery’s Yelp score. It’s about protecting your image and restoring it when things go wrong. Here are the nine rules to keep in mind when you are doing damage control.
Rule #1: Leave the internet bear alone.
Chances are good that there’s a restaurant like Amy’s Baking Company in every city. So why did Amy’s Bakery become the poster child for bad restaurant behavior and not the mediocre Italian place down my block? It poked the internet bear. You must never, ever poke the internet bear. It’s an angry, relentless beast, and it’s flanked by an army of users who can send you negative messages, share their frustrations with peers, and do so with virtually no ramifications—and often anonymously. The internet bear does not sleep…it waits. So, avoid any possibility of falling in its cross-hairs. The most surefire way to have this happen is to fight it head on. Don’t respond to criticism with posts in ALL CAPS, or using profanity. Don’t try to out-insult those who insult you. Don’t argue. Your best bet is to apologize and move on—or don’t engage at all. Which brings me to our next rule…
Rule #2: Do not pick fights with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
Sure, you may think getting into a shouting match with an army of internet commenters, a group that may very well be people with no stake in your brand and nothing better to do than make your life hard, is foolish—but what if it’s a legitimate news source? What do you do if a real newspaper publishes an unflattering review of your product? Should you be ready to engage with them? Well, maybe. If you do it diplomatically, tactfully, and respectfully, then it’s possible. But your approach should be measured. If you think having the heat of angry postings on your Facebook page is bad, just wait and see what it feels like when legitimate journalists begin calling you. If this happens, it’s best to ask for help from your PR people before you take action. And if you don’t have any, find some. This is an emergency-level situation that requires professional help. Of course, the worst thing you can do is write an emotion-filled press release or post a tirade against an unflattering newspaper article on your Facebook wall. But remember, “no comment” is still a story.
Rule #3: Let the haters destroy their own credibility.
Sometimes, you need to find the inner Napoleon and be strategic with your battle plans. Does a good general engage his enemy in every battle that he can? Or, does he wait until the conditions are favorable to fight when he has the high ground? One of the best strategies is to let your detractors become increasingly angry with your refusal to fight, which in turn makes them behave more outlandishly. Now the face of your criticism has lost their accountability. No one cares if you’re right if you aren’t respectable or likable in the first place.
Rule #4: Silence is okay.
Judge how much authority your detractors command. If they aren’t respected, don’t respond—even if their criticisms are valid. Doing so gives credibility to them and their side. And if you do engage them, make sure you’re strategic. Whatever action you take should put you and your organization in a better position for success and recovery. Don’t simply try to get the last word in; once you start that process it becomes a race to the bottom.
Rule #5: But you should listen.
If one person complains, they could be wrong. If a lot of people complain, you’re wrong. This is a data-focused age, so use your head. If you measure high ratings, and good customer satisfaction, yet one very angry person blows up at you on Twitter, perhaps it is just one angry person on Twitter. Angry people are inescapable, and the most unreasonable are often the loudest. But don’t miss an opportunity to collect valuable feedback. Additionally, if a lot of people are upset with you, you should listen to them. Customer service and feedback are two areas where democracy should prevail. If the majority think your policy is bad or your product needs improvement, then listen. They’re probably right.
Rule #6: Look at it as an opportunity.
You can build better customer relationships by solving problems. Want to turn an angry customer into a dedicated one? Fix their problem! A negative experience can spread through social circles pretty quickly. But one that becomes positive? That travels well too. Pro-tip: act like a human being.
Rule #7: Direct the blame away from you.
What’s the first thing that happens when a company airs a commercial that offends everyone? The ad agency in question gets blamed and fired. Maybe it’s the result of a reckless agency trying to showcase their edgy work to get a Cleo nod. I’m guessing that sometimes, organizations take a gamble on an ad and miscalculate the public’s response. The important thing is that the outrage has been directed away from you, onto someone else. Should you do this? I’m not going to calibrate your moral compass—I’m just sharing what is effective versus what isn’t. But karma is always watching when we mistreat others, so be warned if you’re going to make a habit of throwing people under the bus.
Rule #8: The court of public opinion doesn’t operate like real court does.
Winning in real court with a lawsuit doesn’t vindicate in the court of public opinion. In fact, the opposite can be true. Hypothetically, let’s say you go to court and are accused of negligence. You win, cleared of all allegations. Except, any media coverage up until that point refers to your organization as one accused of negligence. Not good. On the other hand, let’s say someone else is using your brand or trademark, and you can legitimately take them to court and will probably win. Should you? Or will it make you look like a bully? Jack Daniels found a way to win in both courts—using some persuasion and creativity. Think about that before you call your legal team and ask them to pick a fight for you.
Rule #9: Performance creates amnesia.
What’s the best way to get away from a really terrible PR disaster? Outperform it. We’re all familiar with the story of Apple, but it bears repeating. Twenty years ago, Apple was in bad shape. Just a few years earlier they had ousted Steve Jobs and weren’t producing very good products. They very well could have disappeared like many a technology company before them as they became increasingly irrelevant. But then, something amazing happened. Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and they started creating products that weren’t just technically superior to their competition, but sexier, too. No one mentions their early 90’s struggles anymore, because they are one of the most profitable companies in the world. Want another example? Almost 15 years ago, Robert Downey Jr. was the quintessential punchline for late night hosts. His career had nearly disintegrated, as his personal life spiraled out of control with substance abuse problems. How did he reinvent himself? He started making really good movies and giving top-notch performances. No one cares about what happened in his past, because the quality of his work overshadows everything else.
Again, the best formula for avoiding PR disasters is to treat your customers well and to offer a great product. But when disaster strikes, be prepared—and most of all, be smart.
Action List: How to deal with bad publicity
- Publish date:25 January 2010
- Archived on:25 January 2011
Bad publicity can ruin reputations more quickly than ever nowadays. The Internet means that even the smallest example of bad press can spread rapidly to millions of people. Although impossible to shield yourself completely from the ill effects of bad news, you can limit the damage.
Small Business Update
This update was published in Small Business Update 73 – January 2010
Small Business Update from Atom Content Marketing is a monthly magazine for people running their own business. Articles vary in length and cover ‘hot topics’, issues of importance, and current affairs.
- Try to understand where the potential for bad publicity may lie in your business and do what you can to resolve issues before they become a problem. For example, this might involve sending poor quality products back to a supplier, introducing stricter health and safety procedures or dealing with unhappy staff.
- Be aware of the phenomenal speed at which information spreads, especially via social networking sites, and take quick action to counter bad news. For example, if a glitch in the software you market becomes apparent, don’t wait for user complaints to spread virally but use online forums to alert them and explain what you are doing to tackle the problem.
- Don’t be afraid to counteract inaccuracies. For example, if you are aware of a Twitter campaign against you, “tweet” your version of the story. Contact editors if incorrect information has been published, and use your own website and social media presence to dispel misconceptions.
- To say you are sorry does not amount in law to an admission of guilt. However, it can show customers, suppliers and other stakeholders that you take your responsibilities seriously and defuse a situation before it gets out of hand.
- “No comments”, however, usually imply you are hiding something. Designate one person who is authorised to speak to journalists and ensure all your staff know they should direct media enquiries to that person. You may want to consider some level of media training for them.
- Answer media questions fully and factually, offering background briefings where necessary. If there are reasons why this is not possible – for example, if you are asked to give confidential customer details or you are waiting for the outcome of an enquiry, explain why you are withholding information.
- At times you may feel it is better to offer a written statement. Ask what deadlines journalists face and try at least to offer a holding statement until a fuller explanation is ready.
- Understand the media’s need for a story. You may be able to deflect bad publicity by pointing out a bigger story elsewhere. You could also counterbalance bad publicity by pointing out, for example, how many satisfied customers you have.
- Review all incidents and consider ways you could have acted differently which would have led to a better outcome.
- Finally, rebuild your firm’s reputation by generating good PR – for example, through supporting charity or promoting positive news stories. Build relations with journalists, so if there is a “next time” they will have some prior understanding of you and your business.
- Act speedily to confront and counteract bad publicity – Turn to experts such as lawyers and PR professionals when necessary
- Learn from your mistakes.
- Ignore the power of individuals using social media to destroy reputations
- Be tempted to lie to journalists
- Assume it is best to keep a low profile after an incident.
Managing Bad Press
What to do–and not do–if your company comes under the glare of a not-so-positive spotlight.
JULY 30, 2007
When writing stories, most reporters strive to present an educated, balanced view that neither overly disparages nor glorifies the subjects. It’s not in the reporter’s or the media outlet’s best interests to present a false or biased article.
However, there may be a time when your company is confronted with an unflattering article. While bad press usually ends up not being as bad as it seems at first, it could hurt your business’ reputation and affect relationships with your customers and business contacts. In such instances, action may be warranted.
When assessing options for dealing with negative press, there are three basic scenarios to consider. Each scenario takes into account several variables that could occur as the article gains attention. While there’s no set formula for handling such a situation, the company that keeps its focus usually ends up in the best position.
- Take no action.
For any recipient of bad press, the impact almost inevitably seems worse than it really is. Downbeat perspectives can seem like personal attacks, which engender emotional reactions. But it’s especially important to keep a cool head and follow procedures to deal with the situation most effectively.
First, take a step back and breathe. Then ask yourself the following questions: Is the situation really so dire? Will the news definitely impact sales or business relationships? Is the publication well known and widely read by your target audience? Is the article factually inaccurate or unduly biased?
If your answers to these questions are uncertain, then the best initial response is to hold steady and continue to monitor the situation. News cycles aren’t very long, and bad press usually fades over time. How much of last week’s news can you recall in detail? Not responding to an article limits the attention given to it. Responding publicly, on the other hand, can validate the reporter’s claims and train a harsher spotlight on the issue.
Not responding, however, doesn’t mean doing nothing at all. Concentrate on your key relationships, ensuring that any incoming queries are answered quickly, clearly and succinctly. It’s always useful to prepare counterpoints and key facts for addressing employees, business partners and customers. When responding to queries, use direct and personal communication whenever you can.
The bottom line: Don’t dig a deeper hole than you’re already in.
- Contact the reporter or editor.
If the story is factually incorrect or unduly biased, consider contacting the reporter or editor involved. All publications, with the exception of a very rare few, will issue corrections for factual errors. If the issue is purely one of perception, however, a correction is unlikely. But the reporter may be open to hearing your side of the story, especially if he or she didn’t offer you the opportunity to provide commentary for the initial article.
Most reporters and editors are open to taking calls and discussing the article. When initiating such a conversation, focus on trying to clear up misunderstandings and build a relationship of trust. If you instill in the reporter a deeper understanding of your business, he or she will be more likely to call on you for contributions to future articles.
Don’t use the call as a forum to air grievances. This will cause the reporter to take a defensive stance and make it extremely difficult for him or her to accept your point of view. Also, don’t expect the reporter to issue an immediate follow-up story. Such a response is rare as it would hint to readers that the reporter may have been wrong. Further, the reporter will likely feel that the topic has been covered and is no longer “hot” enough for news.
However, it may be possible to pique a reporter’s interest by offering a different angle on the story that includes fresh information or opposing evidence. Third party industry experts can be a tremendous resource in such situations because they can support your company’s position without being directly tied to your business. This adds credibility and should provide the reporter a valid reason to reconsider his or her stance.
Another option is to target publications that compete with the negatively biased outlet to encourage positive, “contradictory” coverage. Competing publications often read each other’s work and have an incentive to find stories that counter or discredit their rival. A third party expert, as described above, can provide the necessary ammunition to create this opportunity. However, before taking such an approach, it’s best to weigh the potential risks. It’s possible that instead of encouraging a contradictory piece, you could set the stage for an article that reinforces many of the negative claims.
- Issue a public response.
Sometimes bad press can damage a business’ or executive’s reputation. If so, it may be necessary to issue a public response.
A straightforward news release sent over the wires and directly to individual publications offers the most efficient means of disseminating information. Publishing a response on a website or blog is also worth considering, although the latter invites public commentary that may be contentious and possibly inflammatory.
Another possible approach is to write an op-ed piece or letter to the editor of the publication in question. The key benefit of this approach is that it targets the publication directly. But keep in mind that if your letter is published, there may be a considerable amount of time between submission and publication.
Any public statement should directly address only the issues put forward in the original article in a factual, non-emotive and balanced style. If issuing a news release, consider a “CEO letter” format, rather than the standard format. Write the news release as if it were a personal letter from the CEO, rather than an announcement or proclamation of fact. Using a personal approach presents a “take charge” image–one that is built on rational thought and leadership. The aim is to calm and dissolve any apprehension that customers or employees may have.
Resist the urge to directly accuse the reporter or publication of malicious behavior or bad reporting. This is no time to burn bridges. In the future, you may wish to promote a new product or service, and any relationships you can maintain while simultaneously defending your business will be of value. Stick to the facts, and let them speak for themselves.
The vast majority of media coverage is balanced or positive, especially when it involves small businesses. If bad press occurs, the best approach is to remain calm, keep a level head and try to put it into perspective, as overreaction can worsen the situation. Think through your options and respond accordingly. Bad press can be a chance not only for you to make your case clearly known, but to show leadership and clarity of mind under pressure.
Media Relations: Handling Bad News
By Doug Luciani, Chief Associate, PRofit from PR – Public Relations & Marketing
Good news is great, but handle a bad news story poorly and the negative publicity can be severe.
A successful media relations campaign is valuable to any business, including hotels and resorts. Positive exposure of a property can generate reservations, increase profits, and give a business a competitive edge. However, the press isn’t always going to be good. Bad news is a reality and negative publicity can erase any positive exposure.
Hotels are extremely susceptible to negative news. Food poison stories and stories about crime against guests often make the headlines. Some stories are completely out of the control of a hotel, such as hurricanes, floods or wild fires. Other stories are investigative reports that media outlets may do to expose flaws like unsanitary practices or unsafe furniture, such as defective cribs. It doesn’t matter if they actually find something, perception can often become reality.
It is important to be ready to handle the crisis communications surrounding these types of stories. If handled poorly, a negative story can be devastating to a hotel’s reputation and bottom line. An effective response can help minimize this, and in some instances, the response is so well received by the public the business actually grows stronger. Johnson & Johnson is a textbook case of this following the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. Because they put public safety ahead of profits, the media and consumers gave the company high praise.
Many think they can control the media or that reporters in their local market are their friend. That may be true, until a crisis erupts. A key part of any effective crisis communications plan is to have an appropriate spokesperson prepared to handle a media who will dig, probe and try to knock you off your key message.
It is important to be open and honest in all communications. It is also important to be in control of your message. Only approved staff members should speak to the media and this is especially true in a crisis situation. In addition, hotels should have a crisis communications plan. This plan should be in writing, updated regularly, and distributed to the appropriate individuals for effective execution.
What should be included in this plan? Any plan is made up of a few basics. First, it should include initial action steps once a crisis begins. This may involve securing a facility, notifying law enforcement and will most definitely involve contacting the individuals needed to execute the communications plan and keep the media informed. That being said, the plan needs to identify who these individuals are, their role and their contact information. Other steps include adding information to your institution’s Web site and coordinating the release of all information across distribution points.
Communicating during a crisis may mean dealing with information that can position your property in a negative light. Do not attack or blame the media for this problem. Do not attack them directly or in communications with other audiences. The media can hurt you more than you can hurt them. In addition, media outlets enjoy being involved in controversy. It helps them sell more papers or brings in more viewers, which increases their ad revenue, sales, and profits.
That being said, it does not mean you can’t be proactive. Be sure to communicate your side of the story. Perception will become reality if you do not answer a negative. You can also lessen negative publicity by lending perspective to a situation.
When communicating with a journalist during a crisis situation there a few things to remember. First and foremost, a reporter is there to do a job – their job.
When speaking with a reporter do not speculate. Only speak to what you know. If you do not know the answer to a question, do not make it up. Simply tell the reporter that you will need to call them back with that information. Reporters are looking to deliver stories that are based on facts, not fiction.
If during a conversation or interview a reporter makes a mistake regarding the facts, correct them. Do not assume they misspoke or feel that you will be out of line pointing out their error. If you do not speak up, their error could be perceived as fact by the audience. Furthermore, do not let a reporter put words in your mouth.
Through the years movies have shown how reporters get background information from a reluctant source by using the phrase “off the record.” In the real world, there is no such thing as “off the record”, or to “speak on background” as some may say. The problem is that there is no standard definition as to what “off the record” means. Does it mean the information can’t be shared – ever? Does it mean it can be shared if the reporter obtains independent confirmation? Does it mean it can be shared without attribution?
Do not rely on “No Comment” as an appropriate response – EVER. You should never say “no comment.” The phrase conjures up images of someone trying to hide something, usually their face behind a jacket as they are led away in handcuffs. It simply leaves the impression you are not being completely honest.
Do not attempt to stall or stonewall a reporter. Journalists flourish when sources try to give them the run-around. It motivates them to get to the bottom of the story. If a reporter senses trouble, they will not stop until they find it.
The media is not the only outside source who can impact your property’s reputation. Today, the Internet offers an outlet for the public to post their information and thoughts. Guest communications and assistance during a crisis can help mitigate any information and hard feelings that may arise. This may prevent or at least lessen negative reviews and reports on the Web.
Working with the media during good times can be a great benefit to a hotel. When the news turns bad, it is equally important to execute effective media relations efforts in order to lessen the impact of this negative exposure. Hospitality management can take safety precautions to lessen the possibility of a situation, such as food poison, occurring. But no amount of preparation can prevent the impact from all potential crisis situations. Knowing how to properly deal with the media when a crisis occurs is the key.