Late last week, I received “the freak-out call.” Back when I was a journalist, one public relations rep or another would call, frantic about a client I was about to portray negatively in a column or story. As a journalist, the freak-out call was a guilty pleasure; sometimes it even provided information for a story that I might not have gotten without the freak-out. The call I received last week revealed what it was like to be on the public relations end of a potential negative news story, and a self-made crisis was narrowly averted through careful crisis management.
The call came from a good friend who was recently appointed to head a small but growing company, someone I’d been advising via phone and email. Precipitating the call was an imminent story in a major newspaper about the company, and the journalist had, in my friend’s words, “basically said that the story would be extremely negative.” My friend had good reason to freak out, I told him, but I suggested he first relax and examine the situation. I asked him some simple questions:
1) Was there anything in the story that wasn’t true?
2) Did the company have ample time to respond?
3) Was there any new information–information about the company that the public was unaware of–in the story?
The answer to each question was no, but that didn’t solve the problem. While the story was going to be 100 percent true, contain no new information, and give equal time to the company’s response, the writer had made it clear that the company was going to be portrayed badly. This could signal the beginning of a crisis, but there was nothing definitive. Yet.
I got on the phone with the company’s public relations team, and its CEO, to discuss the story. The public relations team ran down the list of potential negatives in the story, none of which seemed particularly earth-shattering to me. (It’s not like these guys were selling guns to terrorists.)
The company had made a decision to issue a press release the day the story hit. The press release would rebut the newspaper’s story, and it was ready to go. I expressed some amazement at this point, wondering how the company would rebut a story which it had yet to read. It was clear that the company’s brain trust was in freak-out mode, so I made a few suggestions.
1) What’s the worst possible outcome of the story? Would you lose customers? Partners? Employees? Shareholders? Will the company be sued?
2) How long will the story linger? Is this the type of story that could snowball into second-day coverage from another media outlet?
3) Was there going to be anything positive in the story to build on? Does the story point out past problems that are now being rectified?
4) If you read the story and it was about one of your competitors, a company you do business with, or a company you’re a consumer of, would it change your impression of the company?
The responses I received differed greatly down the line. The optimists in the group began to feel the story would blow over, while the pessimists were checking their blood pressure. I was trying to convince the company that the looming crisis was their creation, not the media’s. After another 30 minutes of discussion, I gave my final opinion: just wait for the story to hit.
A few days later, the story finally ran. The story was rather negative, at least from the perspective of insiders, or a third party with insider knowledge. By the same token, the main angle was my friend taking the company’s reins. It posed a basic question: “Can he turn around a troubled company?”
I first read the story at about 8:15 A.M. ET; by noon, I had not heard from anyone at the company. I sent off an email to gauge everyone’s reaction. Very quickly, the head of the public relations department responded: “I haven’t heard from anyone; looks like it may blow over.” And it did.
My confided that, without guidance, the company would have reacted with a press release and complaints to the publication. I told my friend that I’ve seen more public relations crises created by companies, organizations, and individuals than by the media itself. While an article, expose, or negative news story can often begin a public relations crisis, companies tend to make matters worse by trying to inflict a counter-opinion on the public immediately after that initial negative news story. This defensive posturing lends unintended credibility to the original negative news story, reversing the intended effect of crisis management.
Make no mistake, if you know a negative news story is coming down the pipe, you should be preparing a crisis management strategy. However, you should wait for the story’s impact before launching into full-blown crisis management mode. The negative news story may not have much shelf-life, but if you act too quickly, you could actually extend the shelf-life, creating an entirely new problem.
With this in mind, here are some crisis management tips to think about before you create a crisis yourself:
1) Ask the reporter to fact-check the article with you ahead of time. This is a basic request in which you ask the journalist to read back any on-the-record comments you’ve made, along with any facts and figures you’ve provided. Do not use this as an excuse to change your tune; instead, use this time to subtly persuade the story towards the positive by offering additional information and quotes you may have withheld in the first place. Remember, do not try to bully the reporter unless you want to ratchet up the negative attention.
2) Wait for the story before reacting. While it’s good to have a crisis management plan in place to rebut a negative news story, don’t force the issue if it’s not necessary. If the story gets prominent placement and leads to another media outlet calling, then you may have a problem. Otherwise, write a letter to the editor and leave it alone.
3) Don’t use a press release unless it’s absolutely necessary. I am of the belief that rebutting a negative news story via press release often causes more harm than good because it lacks third-party filtering. For example, a third party (the media) has reported something negative about your company. The only positives, meanwhile, are coming from you, sans filter. If your company has been unfairly targeted, or you feel you need to rebut something in a story, turn to another media outlet to get the real story out.
4) Gauge the true crisis by what you hear. If your employees, customers, partners, and stockholders haven’t seen the story or have ignored it, take it as a positive sign. If you get complaints or questions from these groups, launch your crisis management plan internally, rather than publicly. Rebut the story with a letter to these groups and make that public. The less vitriol the better; focus on the positives and turn the negatives around.
Crisis management is important, but not preemptively creating a crisis yourself is even more important. Don’t feel pressured to respond immediately because someone reports a potential negative. Even in this era of 24/7 news, time is on your side. Taking a few minutes to do a realistic damage assessment could save you a lot of public relations trouble.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.