“We thought we could just do our jobs and serve our customers and everything would be fine.”
“After the crisis hit, we tried to get some positive messaging out there, but the negative publicity and political pressures were so overwhelming we could not counter it regardless of what we did.”
“I said that, but it was taken out of context. I will never talk with that reporter again.”
These are just a few of the comments I’ve heard from executives who have been burned – some seriously – as the result of media coverage. Some were the result of a real crisis, others were just fabricated crises that nonetheless cost time and stress on the organizations put under the media’s microscope.
Here are some thoughts about what we can do to make things better when the aggressive reporter comes down our hallway or driveway with cameras rolling.
1. We should let the public get to know us before the bad stuff happens. We are more likely to give someone we know the benefit of the doubt than someone we don’t know. The same is true for companies, politicians, and others. Corporations, in general, may be seen as greedy but the manufacturing plant in our town puts food on our tables and sponsors charitable activities. Politicians as a whole often are seen as crooked but people remember that their local officials got their potholes filled promptly.
The more people understand what we do and what we stand for, the better off we are. It takes a lot of information repeated consistently over time to build understanding and trust. With a constant drumbeat of communication, a company can earn the benefit of the doubt by being a known and understood entity in the community.
2. Prepare for the worst. By being prepared to respond to the worst thing that could happen, organizations also are preparing to make the most of every situation. We might focus on the crisis that doesn’t happen rather than the one that does, such as a natural disaster rather than a management misstep, but the process of preparing will result in better communication and an improved result. It’s also a good idea to line up resources to help when things go awry. Not everyone understands what steps to take to help prepare the spokesperson, set up an interview in the best way, or hold a media outlet responsible for its reporting. Experienced public relations experts do, so they are great to have in the room as those tough decisions are being made.
3. Act like there is a camera and microphone pointed at us all the time. We would all be a lot better off if we behaved as though the world were watching, and with today’s mobile technology, it may well be! An employee, reporter, or neighbor can show video evidence, making someone who denied it look foolish or dishonest. We need to keep that in mind and not deny something until we have more information. There are ways of saying no comment without saying those precise words.
4. Increase outreach efforts following negative publicity to offset it. The inclination might be to hunker down for a while, but in most cases, it is better to work harder to share the positive aspects of a business. We can talk about our employees, the contributions we make to the quality of life, and demonstrate through volunteer work the kind of people we are. Not only will the good news replace the one not-so-good story in the public’s memory, but it will also help push it deeper into the search results online.
Unfortunately, it’s a world in which a mistake or bad judgment call can put us in a reputation-damaging situation. It is better to think ahead of what could happen for the worst, plan for it, and then live as though everyone is watching.