7 Steps to Handle Negative Press Like a Pro

Media love can be fickle. For example, take the medical-testing startup Theranos. In 2015, was being called the most innovative health company valued at $9 billion, with its founder the youngest, female billionaire in America. Now it’s a dark tale of “what not to do” in business.

When you are on the rise, they love to cover you. However, they also will get the story of your downfall. Media was just as quick to turn on them as they were to prop them up once it was revealed that they weren’t upright and forthcoming in the beginning. The major takeaway: Don’t oversell. Be honest about your business and what it has to offer.

However, even if you are a responsible company that does everything “by the book”, negative publicity can pop up. Whether it is dealing with a negative customer experience, a product recall, data breach, or an employee ethics scandal, every business needs to be prepared for the media backlash. Otherwise, the negative press could do irreparable damage and put you out of business for good. No business, is immune to the effects of negative media.

Seaworld’s profits tanked 84% after the “Blackfish” documentary release (and it’s still associated with animal cruelty and a bad reputation).

Plagued by the indecent behavior of its now former CEO Dov Charney and even more questionable labor practices and marketing, American Apparel became a retail pariah in major media outlets. It has never recovered, and this year, a bankruptcy court bought out the retailer for just $88 million.

Uber is in a major media storm after the sexual harassment scandal involving many high-level executives (not to mention lawsuits and other issues). The bad publicity reportedly sliced off as much as $10 billion off its market value, and led to investors booting out CEO Travis Kalanick.

At 10twelve, we take the approach of preparing are customers for both the good and bad times. Although we hope those bad times never come, taking the steps to prevent them and to plan ahead when they do is key. Here’s what businesses need to know to handle negative press:

1. Address it early on.

Don’t let a minor issue become a full-fledged company scandal. Businesses really need to get out in front of a problem before it gains momentum. Set Google alerts. Monitor discussion forums and social media. Take all the necessary measures to make sure that you are monitoring the conversations around your brand and protecting its reputation. The sooner you know about an issue, the faster you can resolve it.

The key to addressing it early on, before it blows up in your face is to have a plan set and players ready to put it in motion.

2. Document a publicity response plan and train employees.

We all hope that the day when you are hit with a major blow will never happen. As a business, you may be cautious and take all the right steps to ensure that your operations are free from error. However, we can’t control everything, even in business, but we can be prepared.

Take a proactive instead of a reactive approach to publicity. Develop a media plan before problems surface. Anticipate glitches and hiccups that your company might experience so that you can more quickly and calmly respond. It’s not just enough to have a plan in place. There needs to be designated spokesperson(s) that are trained on how to implement it. It could be the CEO or CMO. This is the person the press, investors, customers and other constituents will likely reach out to in times of crisis. There also has to be some chain of command. Every person should know if they have a role to play, what that role is and exactly what they need to do to fulfill it.

3. Know when to respond and when to be silent.

Not responding at all to bad publicity or angry customers still communicates something. It might be interpreted as shady. People may think that you have something to hide when you refuse to talk about allegations or problems within your business. Some may also interpret your lack of response as a lack of caring, especially when it comes to customer and employee complaints.

Sometimes the situation may be too intense. You may be blindsided and not have enough information to adequately respond at that exact moment. Instead of lying, which will only exasperate the situation, invest in figuring out what went wrong and how to correct the issue. Time is still important, so the key is to react as fast as possible without being reckless. 

4. Be accountable and honest.

Don’t dismiss negative press as “alternative facts”. When your company messes up and you know that you have, own up to it. Apologize and be sincere about it. Make actionable changes to prevent the same mistakes from happening again. People have much more respect for companies that are honest and can admit their shortcomings and actively try to correct those than they do for ones that try to deny and cover them up.

Instead of lying and saying “people love us”. Say something like, “Not everyone loves us, but we’re working hard to change that.” This also shows a more human side of your business. Even huge companies like Walmart and Amazon make mistakes and have flaws, so don’t project a false image of perfection that you will never live up to. People will have more respect for and amusement towards a company that is honest with its customers.

5. Back yourself up with hard data.

In the rare case that your negative publicity is completely unfounded or unwarranted, then prove it. If you take this path though, you need to be able to back up your claim with solid, indisputable facts. That could mean partnering with an outside, unaffiliated organization to investigate the matter.

6. Change your mindset.

Negative press can hurt, but it can also be an opportunity. This criticism can make you aware of flaws or weaknesses that are holding your company back. View it as valuable feedback. Take those comments and use them to improve the parts of your business that aren’t meeting expectations.

7. Create better stories.

To combat negative press, you have to generate other, more positive stories. These are stories that reflect your brand, its values and mission. For example, Uber recently tried to deflect much of the negative press scrutiny it has been under by promoting its partnership with the LGBTQ community and the Pride parade.

It’s too early to say if Uber will make it out of the woods and to the other side yet, but everyone loves a good comeback. Focus on making positive changes and tackling tough issues that force your business to perform at its highest level.

Document your procedures for responding to bad publicity. Get ahead of negative press and run your business with honesty and integrity. Hopefully, your business will never have to deal with the effects of negative press. As they say, “It is better to be safe than sorry.” It helps to have a team of people to back you up when you are in a moment of crisis or when you just need some advice on marketing tactics. For some expert advice, feel free to reach out to the 10twelve team today.