Can Public Relations Polish a Tarnish Image?

How do you polish a tarnished image? For celebrities, a tearful interview or two will go a long way to help sway the court of public opinion. But for a company or organization, a tarnished image requires a lot more public relations polish than an appearance on Larry King.

The first step in repairing a company’s image occurs internally. A company must admit its mistakes and be forthright with its employees. As I’ve written a number of times in the past, employees are an essential part of your public relations team. WorldCom, for example, did a terrible job of internal damage-control, and the results included embarrassing press leaks, low worker morale, and a general malaise that still infects the company several years after its star burned out.

To help boost employee morale, be honest. Remember, you’re an employee, too. Unless you’re directly involved or have knowledge of a scandal, you’ll probably want to know the truth also. It is important to meet with employees in groups–large or intimate–to outline what’s going on. Do not use written communications, as often these will be leaked to the media. The most important thing to make clear to employees is that they cannot benefit from speaking with the media.

I’ve seen more than a few companies suffer dire consequences because they couldn’t convince their employees to remain silent. In an age where most people have at least one anonymous email address–and reporter’s email addresses are easily accessible–you must convince employees that speaking to the media would only do harm and could cost jobs, and not just their own.

A public relations team, working in conjunction with company executives, must execute an internal public relations strategy outlining steps the company will make to ensure that the employees themselves don’t become tarnished. It’s no fun looking for a job with a scandalous company on your resume, and it’s even less fun being stuck working for one of these companies with no prospects of work elsewhere.

Without effective internal communication, damage control is impossible–and the tarnish will remain.

The media loves a scandal–so does the general public–and will do its best to investigate, scrutinize, and editorialize missteps. Your public relations team won’t be able to contain this madness, but an effective PR team can help control media coverage by biting the bullet and speaking up.

Obviously, you must consider matters of legal liability before speaking to the media, and this is why your legal team will become an important player in your public relations strategy. If your scandal involves legal problems, it is imperative that you work with lawyers to devise acceptable language for all external communications, be they print or verbal.

Containing the media during a scandal is difficult. We’ve all seen the pictures of satellite trucks parked outside of courthouses and corporate headquarters. We’ve also seen pictures of security personnel hustling reporters out of buildings and off company property. This is not how you want your company portrayed.

Companies immersed in scandals should hold daily press conferences at their headquarters or daily conference calls with reporters. Such events would become stale quickly, but it would help consolidate the media madness. The staleness would also be a positive, sucking some of the juiciness out of the story and turning reporters off.

The media plays an important role in a company’s damage control because the media becomes the chief messenger. In times of crisis, a company shouldn’t try to manipulate the media when its credibility is already at an all-time low. What the company needs to do is reinforce its message so it continually reaches the company’s key audience.

Because scandals often involve illegal activity–yes, there are actually scandals that do NOT involve crimes–it is difficult for most companies to “come clean.” This is an important point to make to the media, customers, and employees. Exposing the company to further liability only exacerbates scandal, but companies have to make it known that eventually the public will be apprised of the full story. Giving people some peace of mind is a public relations team’s most important job in the face of scandal, and some of that peace of mind comes by letting others know that you’re “feeling their pain.”

Companies and individuals can recover from scandals, and a company’s or person’s luster may even return at some point. Financier Michael Milkin, who served 22 months in prison for securities fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy, is a perfect example. He’s now identified as a philanthropist and a cancer survivor. Of course, not everyone will be so lucky to be worth billions. But Milkin’s post-scandal PR is a result, more than anything, of a behavioral change. And that, more than anything, will help a company repair its image and restore some luster to its name.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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