For decades the statement “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has circulated amongst business owners. Those who recite this mantra often believe that even when people are saying horrible things about your company, it’s okay, because at least you’re getting some attention. But really, that just sounds like a case of good ol’ denial, if you ask us.

When you’re on the receiving end of negative attention, it’s tempting for anyone, but especially we business owners, to try soothing ourselves with a time honoured cliché. But let’s be very clear here, the idea that train-wreck media coverage can’t or won’t harm your organisation is not just deluded, it’s dangerous. Thinking that way could ultimately damage both your bottom line and your precious reputation.

Let’s also be clear what we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about someone complaining to get a freebie, or having a bit of a whinge in general or a once-off mention in the news. Nor are we talking about receiving plain old negative feedback. Negative feedback is part and parcel of running a business/organisation. And sometimes, hearing the less than stellar, is the best way to push ourselves and our companies to new and better heights.

So when someone complains either to you or your staff personally, via social media or in the news media – you need to consider it a gift, be humble and say thank you.

How exactly do you do that? Simply by acknowledging the situation and then doing something to rectify it in some way. Often people just want to be acknowledged and heard.

It’s when people don’t understand the rules of such engagement (or they’re arrogant or psychopathic) that things get out of hand – especially when it comes to complaints/issues aired via the media.

What we’re really talking about is being the subject of sustained negative media coverage. And that my friend is often the result of looking the gift horse that is a much smaller complaint in the mouth and either doing nothing, or getting your back up and coming out fighting – neither of which help at all.

When publicity is downright disastrous

Take the recent goings on with Bronwyn Bishop and choppergate. When the media mentioned she’d spent $5227 on a return helicopter charter between Melbourne and Geelong, the coverage itself was designed to create a good yarn (ie: a bit of a beat up), whip up some voter backlash and stir up debate about politicians (on any side) being out of touch. Let’s not forget Ms Bishop’s flight wasn’t illegal and she was within the limits of what was ‘allowed’ according to her workplace agreement – much like some corporations have rules that allow employees to fly business class if they travel on flights over x hours. Hardly a career-ending story. And no matter whether you think it’s fair/ethical, etc, let’s face it, pollies of all persuasions, regularly claim their travel ‘allowances’ for all sorts of things, regular tax-paying employees think are rorts. Anyhoo…

Had Ms Bishop, looked at the story, spoken to and/or taken the advice of her press secretary or any other PR person on the planet she may well have done the following instead.

Upon seeing how inflamed the issue could become (through research, polling, etc), Ms Bishop could have gotten onto the front foot and become a hero, by calling a press conference, looking shocked at how she could have gotten it so wrong by the voters, apologized for getting it wrong and suggesting that she’d be getting a group together to look at entitlement revisions – preferably with voter input to boot (consultation never goes astray).

And that, ladies and gents, would have been the end of the story. People would have forgiven her mistake =, applauded her candor and yesterdays’ news would have been today’s fish and chip wrappers.

But, instead, she came out swinging and her arrogance ultimately ended a long-standing career. It took 15 days of serious, sustained, negative coverage to elicit an apology from Ms Bishop.

All the while memes like these were in full circulation – further fanning the flames.

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A couple of days later, her career was in tatters.

So what does that mean for you as a business owner? When faced with the potential for negative publicity, be proactive and find the opportunity to turn it into something positive.

4 tips to avoid negative publicity

  • Communicate as soon as possible: develop a timely, honest and informative response. If you have done something wrong, owning up to it could be better for your reputation in the long term. Putting up a wall of “no comment” could suggest a lack of remorse and encourage the media to keep digging.
  • Appoint the right spokesperson: Media Training will help them to remain calm in the face of probing reporters, stay on message and answer the tricky questions effectively.
  • Post your side of the story: this could be on your website or your blog. It’s your platform for a direct explanation to the public without any opining from the media.
  • Consider professional help when publicity is likely to be particularly awful, don’t think that you need to go through it alone. Seeking help can guide you through the process and save your reputation.

So although it’s never welcome – remember it’s how you manage the negative coverage from the outset that could make or break your business.

If you’re after better publicity or require crisis management advice, we’d love to help. Give us a call on (02) 8012 8008 or drop us a note.

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