Managing Bad Press

What to do--and not do--if your company comes under the glare of a not-so-positive spotlight.

By Rachel Meranus

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When writing stories, most reporters strive to present an educated, balanced view that neither overly disparages nor glorifies the subjects. It's not in the reporter's or the media outlet's best interests to present a false or biased article.

However, there may be a time when your company is confronted with an unflattering article. While bad press usually ends up not being as bad as it seems at first, it could hurt your business' reputation and affect relationships with your customers and business contacts. In such instances, action may be warranted.

When assessing options for dealing with negative press, there are three basic scenarios to consider. Each scenario takes into account several variables that could occur as the article gains attention. While there's no set formula for handling such a situation, the company that keeps its focus usually ends up in the best position.

1. Take no action.
For any recipient of bad press, the impact almost inevitably seems worse than it really is. Downbeat perspectives can seem like personal attacks, which engender emotional reactions. But it's especially important to keep a cool head and follow procedures to deal with the situation most effectively.

First, take a step back and breathe. Then ask yourself the following questions: Is the situation really so dire? Will the news definitely impact sales or business relationships? Is the publication well known and widely read by your target audience? Is the article factually inaccurate or unduly biased?

If your answers to these questions are uncertain, then the best initial response is to hold steady and continue to monitor the situation. News cycles aren't very long, and bad press usually fades over time. How much of last week's news can you recall in detail? Not responding to an article limits the attention given to it. Responding publicly, on the other hand, can validate the reporter's claims and train a harsher spotlight on the issue.

Not responding, however, doesn't mean doing nothing at all. Concentrate on your key relationships, ensuring that any incoming queries are answered quickly, clearly and succinctly. It's always useful to prepare counterpoints and key facts for addressing employees, business partners and customers. When responding to queries, use direct and personal communication whenever you can.

The bottom line: Don't dig a deeper hole than you're already in.

2. Contact the reporter or editor.
If the story is factually incorrect or unduly biased, consider contacting the reporter or editor involved. All publications, with the exception of a very rare few, will issue corrections for factual errors. If the issue is purely one of perception, however, a correction is unlikely. But the reporter may be open to hearing your side of the story, especially if he or she didn't offer you the opportunity to provide commentary for the initial article.

Most reporters and editors are open to taking calls and discussing the article. When initiating such a conversation, focus on trying to clear up misunderstandings and build a relationship of trust. If you instill in the reporter a deeper understanding of your business, he or she will be more likely to call on you for contributions to future articles.

Don't use the call as a forum to air grievances. This will cause the reporter to take a defensive stance and make it extremely difficult for him or her to accept your point of view. Also, don't expect the reporter to issue an immediate follow-up story. Such a response is rare as it would hint to readers that the reporter may have been wrong. Further, the reporter will likely feel that the topic has been covered and is no longer "hot" enough for news.

However, it may be possible to pique a reporter's interest by offering a different angle on the story that includes fresh information or opposing evidence. Third party industry experts can be a tremendous resource in such situations because they can support your company's position without being directly tied to your business. This adds credibility and should provide the reporter a valid reason to reconsider his or her stance.

Another option is to target publications that compete with the negatively biased outlet to encourage positive, "contradictory" coverage. Competing publications often read each other's work and have an incentive to find stories that counter or discredit their rival. A third party expert, as described above, can provide the necessary ammunition to create this opportunity. However, before taking such an approach, it's best to weigh the potential risks. It's possible that instead of encouraging a contradictory piece, you could set the stage for an article that reinforces many of the negative claims.

3. Issue a public response.
Sometimes bad press can damage a business' or executive's reputation. If so, it may be necessary to issue a public response.

A straightforward news release sent over the wires and directly to individual publications offers the most efficient means of disseminating information. Publishing a response on a website or blog is also worth considering, although the latter invites public commentary that may be contentious and possibly inflammatory.

Another possible approach is to write an op-ed piece or letter to the editor of the publication in question. The key benefit of this approach is that it targets the publication directly. But keep in mind that if your letter is published, there may be a considerable amount of time between submission and publication.

Any public statement should directly address only the issues put forward in the original article in a factual, non-emotive and balanced style. If issuing a news release, consider a "CEO letter" format, rather than the standard format. Write the news release as if it were a personal letter from the CEO, rather than an announcement or proclamation of fact. Using a personal approach presents a "take charge" image--one that is built on rational thought and leadership. The aim is to calm and dissolve any apprehension that customers or employees may have.

Resist the urge to directly accuse the reporter or publication of malicious behavior or bad reporting. This is no time to burn bridges. In the future, you may wish to promote a new product or service, and any relationships you can maintain while simultaneously defending your business will be of value. Stick to the facts, and let them speak for themselves.

The vast majority of media coverage is balanced or positive, especially when it involves small businesses. If bad press occurs, the best approach is to remain calm, keep a level head and try to put it into perspective, as overreaction can worsen the situation. Think through your options and respond accordingly. Bad press can be a chance not only for you to make your case clearly known, but to show leadership and clarity of mind under pressure.

Rachel Meranus

Rachel Meranus is vice president of communications at PR Newswire, an online press release distribution network based in New York. Get more information about PR Newswire and public relations with their PR Toolkit for small businesses.

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