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January 27, 2014

PR Advice on Responding To Negative Coverage

handling_bad_publicityIt can rise from a long-simmering situation or come out of nowhere. You, or your company, is being attacked or criticized in public.

The way you handle a negative story can make all the difference. Here’s how to respond without fanning the flames of a negative situation.

Do respond.  Don’t hide. In many cases, a lack of response will be seen as a validation of the criticisms, or at best, an information vacuum. The sooner the response, the easier it will be to control the situation. Yet, a speedy reaction is often difficult. In a high-stakes situation where the facts are unclear, say so, but refute any untruths, and pledge to get out the supporting information as quickly as possible.

But don’t dignify baseless rumors. One exception to the above is the case of an unsubstantiated rumor, where you risk calling more attention to it by responding. The same is true of an Internet troll. In that case, let the community handle blatant misbehavior, foul language, or abusive comments.

Let your advocates defend you. In that vein, if you have trusted clients or customers willing to comment in your defense, by all means, let them. The essence of reputation is what others say about you in public, so third parties, even those who are not 100% objective, are your allies.

Don’t overreact. It’s natural to feel emotional or even use defensive language when attacked, particularly if things get personal.  When accused of copying a competitor’s intellectual property, a client drafted a lengthy defense on his website that referred to “slander” and “lies.” We ultimately convinced him that the post might raise more questions than it answered, particularly for site visitors with no knowledge of the situation. If you can’t be objective (and it’s hard when it’s your business), seek objective advice.

Ask for equal time. Most legitimate websites or news sources will give you the opportunity to refute a questionable story. Where facts or details are wrong, your smartest approach will be to calmly insist on your right to set the record straight. Don’t threaten or bully; appeal to the journalist’s desire for accuracy. No one wants to get it wrong.

Use objective facts and figures. A convincing response is usually one that uses statistics or objective facts and cites sources. Where possible, quote third parties. Corporate recognition, ratings, and recommendations can be useful in making your case.

If at fault, apologize. If your company has made a mistake, admit it and offer a prompt and sincere apology. Avoid weaselly or legalistic language like, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended.” Take responsibility. Then, take steps to fix the situation or make amends.

Look for the opportunities. Public criticism can be a gift in disguise. Think about whether it could be an opportunity to remedy a problem or improve your business offering. If appropriate, thank your critics and take advantage of the opening to tout the fix.

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