4 Tips for Handling a PR Nightmare

Bad publicity is something every company fears. One misstep has the potential to create a huge amount of backlash if it is picked up by the press and becomes a major news story. Marketing and communications professionals are at the front lines when it comes to PR, but if the issue is big enough it will eventually come back to the company’s leaders, especially the CEO.

Reputation incidents can pass quickly, or they can become an ongoing issue that eventually takes down the entire company. Much of this depends on how leaders deal with the situation from the outset. A genuine, nuanced response, one that takes into account the seriousness of the problem while emphasising the organisation’s desire and ability to fix what went wrong, can go a long way to neutralising the damage.

Here are four tips from company leaders who’ve successfully negotiated this delicate situation:

  • Be Transparent – In 2011, the young communications manager at Bath City Football Club, Ned Vaught, found himself at the centre of a controversy when the company offered an 80 percent discount to local groups, including one nearby Polish community. Public comments from fans were taken up by local and national news organisations. Rather than hiding, Vaught responded to every interview request. Before the controversy was over, he had appeared on BBC, talkSPORT, and ITV West Country. His steady communication of the company perspective helped to minimise the negativity the story had generated. Vaught commented afterwards that “it’s much better to be out in the open” in situations like this.
  • Offer Specific Solutions – Brian Berry was unlucky enough to be CEO of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) when the Daily Mail took up a story about a couple whose house had collapsed after they picked a builder from FMB’s member list. Berry responded immediately to requests for comment and expressed his sympathy for the couple on an interview with BBC’s Rip off Britain programme. He also explained what the firm was doing to address the issue: the builder responsible for the faulty house was suspended from FMB membership and eventually dismissed, and the organisation went on to establish stricter entry criteria.
  • Emphasise a Positive Track Record – In 2007, a Virgin Trains crash in Cumbria killed one passenger as a result of a missed inspection. The company took some flak for the incident, but Virgin head, Sir Richard Branson, tried to put the issue in perspective in a TV interview where he pointed out that his company had safely transported half a million passengers without facing a situation like this. Branson’s comment was successful because he maintained sympathy and understanding for the passengers involved in the incident, while at the same time pointing out that, overall, his company had a good track record.
  • Be Prepared – Preparation is everything when it comes to reputation. Companies that have a clear plan for how to handle potential issues will be responsive right from the start. They will be better equipped to coordinate the company’s various branches so everyone is telling the same story. Allyson Stewart-Allen, CEO of International Marketing Partners, underlines the importance of having a proactive strategy. Every executive should “know what the party line is and how to get that message out to their own national press” she says.

Consistent reputation management is an important part of any preparation effort. Reputation Defender’s professional ORM services help to build an in-depth online profile and assist companies with reputation repair as soon as a negative story surfaces. Contact our reputation specialists to learn more.