Tech PR pros and others have been buzzing about the recent, highly unflattering feature about Amazon in The New York Times. The piece has triggered debate about whether proactive PR can help prevent or respond to such a situation.
In this case I think PR’s power to prevent or preempt the story is exaggerated, based on the amount of research it contained and the participation by Amazon’s HR chief. But Amazon isn’t a typical company. For most businesses, there are ways to mitigate or at least prepare for a negative story in the making.
Participate, but with caution. When media decide to cover a story, you can’t stop it, but if you participate, you can often exert some influence over the outcome. Don’t waste your time trying to muzzle employees or identify antagonists; journalists will find sources whether you like it or not. So it’s usually better to offer access so as to be aware of what is being said. A good reporter won’t necessarily accept your version of the situation, but they will offer you the chance to rebut or respond. Take it.
Leverage company champions. Supporters of your company, whether cheerleading employees, longtime stakeholders, or super-users of its products and services, can be useful in balancing negative coverage. Good relationships with stakeholders and outside experts are like money in the reputation bank; you can sometimes tap them to help when the pressure is on. Even if you can’t get them in the story, you can be ready to respond after it hits.
Respond to inaccuracies. If a story is inaccurate or seems to distort aspects of the situation, respond. Move quickly to correct facts, expand where context is absent, or offer another point of view. Although Amazon doesn’t typically respond to negative press, CEO Jeff Bezos did react to the Times piece in an internal memo that was clearly intentionally leaked to the press. Interested parties will be more likely to see your side if they know how you feel, even if they do not agree, and those on your side will feel more empowered to speak up.
Revisit media training for key spokespersons. Senior executives and other media spokespersons should always be prepared for media inquiries, but it’s challenging, because you cannot predict when reporters will reach out for a comment after a story is underway. But the thing to remember here is that most negative developments don’t arise out of nowhere; they’re usually simmering situations or errors that have been made before. A risk assessment and quarterly media preparation is always helpful if a negative situations looms, or simply when key officers need to be updated with fresh information about business practices.
Build a bridge between PR and HR. This is most applicable to stories like the Times article that depicted Amazon’s workplace and culture. But HR will typically feel the repercussions of any negative coverage in the responses of of employees or attitudes of potential recruits. Make sure the HR team has an opportunity to debrief with PR to address concerns and reconnect over communications goals and needs.
Look for the benefit. Sometimes there isn’t one. But many times a company can actually turn a negative situation into positive PR. If the brand or business was unfairly criticized or if it’s been affected by forces beyond its control (like a weather disaster or a rogue employee), it can win sympathy. If it’s responsible for mishandling a situation, or, worse, covering up a mistake, there may be an opportunity to admit errors, be transparent, and ultimately turn the conversation to the fix. Once action has been taken to address the problem, the business may be able to channel that negative visibility into a fresh marketing direction and a new commitment to proactive communication.