Dorothy Crenshaw November 11, 2010 | 07:43:08

Can You Turn Bad Publicity Into Good PR?

When Gap unveiled a new logo last month, the negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. It was a miss for Gap…or was it? Logo-gate may have awakened brand fans and made it more relevant than it’s been in years.

Accident? Probably. But there are ways to turn a PR failure into something that strengthens your brand and your business. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.

Apologize. Where offense has been given, a prompt apology is necessary. And it shouldn’t be drafted by lawyers. To have teeth, a mea culpa should be swift and sincere, and it should take responsibility. A textbook example is Jet Blue’s response to the “Valentine’s Day massacre” that stranded passengers and buffeted its reputation in 2007. Then-CEO David Neeleman hit the right notes in an apology tour that helped it straighten up and fly right.

Fix the problem. Better yet, be part of a larger solution. The classic lemons-to-lemonade strategy after a misstep is to be part of the fix for everyone. Mattel set a new standard when it announced enhanced product inspection and supplier audits following massive product recalls of toys made in China. JetBlue also raised the airline industry bar with its “Passenger Bill of  Rights,” a kind of flight plan to prevent incidents like the one that nearly grounded its business.

Share your learnings. Office Depot, a client of my former firm, took advantage of its own experience weathering successive hurricanes at its Delray Beach, Florida headquarters over a period of years. It turned adversity to advantage with a PR campaign that focused on disaster preparation and management for small businesses, – a key customer segment.

Stay the course. What if you’re right, despite a public rush to judgment? Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of withering criticism, after it chose to have its luxury cruise liner call at Labadee, Haiti in the days after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts (and more importantly, passengers) agree that supporting the Haitian community with both supplies and commerce was the right move.

Fight back. Years ago, a New York Post photographer snapped a photo of a mouse eating a doughnut in the window of a midtown Manhattan Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. It was front-page news, and the late-night media feasted on the embarrassment for weeks. Dunkin promptly slapped franchisee Riese Organization with a lawsuit. Though the suit dragged on, it helped send a message that the company was serious about health and safety violations.

Use humor. For a self-inflicted wound, you don’t always need to dust off the crisis handbook. Sometimes a blend of straightforwardness and humor can do the job, especially if it’s authentic to your brand. David Letterman proved it in his handling of the extortion plot against him.

Overcompensate. Often it’s better to “do the time” – in the form of financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement. Alaska Airlines probably wishes it had offered more to passenger Dan Blais when he first complained about his family’s treatment by the carrier. Blais created a blog titled “Alaska Airlines Hates Families” after tangling with the airline. His family’s tickets were given away just before take-off as his wife struggled with a baby diaper emergency in a restroom. Personally, I think the airline was within its rights. But they bungled the customer service piece, and often, being right isn’t enough to save you from the wrong kind of PR.

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