From an unfavorable review of your product in the newspaper to an embarrassing story about one of your executives on the morning news, the possibility of your firm getting bad press is always out there. But what’s the most appropriate course of action? PROFIT asked Boyd Neil, senior vice-president of corporate communications at the Toronto offices of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton to outline strategies to handle bad press.
- Address the issue if it’s valid. “Solve the problem first,” says Neil. If your restaurant is criticized for providing slow service and this is the case, work to improve it. If your executive does have a substance abuse problem, make sure he gets help.
- Don’t overreact. Some business owners tend to exaggerate the negative impact of a story in the media. Assess whether the attention has had any impact on sales or customer behaviour. Sometimes it won’t have, and your stirring things up with the publication or television station will unnecessarily give a dying story legs.
- Take a breath. You may feel the urge to take action right away, but Neil recommends giving the situation a little thought and working out a sound strategy first: “Better to reflect on how big an impact the story has made and what action is most appropriate.”
- Contact your stakeholders directly. If you’re concerned that the story will have an impact on your suppliers or customers, send them a letter or an e-mail. Don’t waste energy slagging the journalist, says Neil. Instead, correct any misinformation or provide more context. “Consider saying something like, ‘You may have noticed a recent story on us in publication X. It was untruthful in the following points …. Here are the real facts ….'” You can also use your website to communicate with your stakeholders quickly.
- Start a dialogue with the journalist. If you feel that a story is genuinely unfair, give the journalist a call. Don’t be inflammatory or accusatory — that will only make the journalist defensive. Instead, politely initiate a conversation to discuss the content of the story. You might suggest aspects of your product or service that the journalist missed in his article and ask that he keep these mind for future stories. In the case of repeated negative stories by a journalist who appears to have a bias, try setting up a meeting with the editor and the journalist.
- Forget retractions and letters to the editor. “Don’t bother asking for a retraction. Few people read them,” Neil says. He also discourages writing a letter to the editor: “They are usually edited, so you may not get your key message out.”
- Seek a positive story with another publication or station. If you get a bad product review in one publication, look to place a story in another. “With computer software, for example, you can contact another publication and ask for the product to be reviewed. Offer to send over a review copy,” says Neil. You may end up with a positive write-up to counter the negative article.
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© 2003 Deena Waisberg