Though it has been said that there is no such thing as bad press, there is little doubt that many organizations that have been on the receiving end of bad press would disagree. Rightly so, since negative public relations (PR) can hit business owners where it hurts most – right in the pocketbook. With that in mind, we can all learn something from companies that have managed to take bad press and work through it, perhaps even spinning it so that the public views the company in a more positive light.
First and foremost, companies should own up when the negative press is warranted, because ignoring the problem is definitely not going to make it go away. British Petroleum (BP) was in the midst of a media circus during the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010. Following the incident, shares in BP plummeted and there was much fear and speculation that the company would not survive. Even though things were a bit sketchy at first, BP did take responsibility for the spill shortly after its occurrence.
Owning up shows that the company is being honest and forthcoming with the public, which ultimately helps the company to restore respect in the public's opinion. Keep in mind that a half-hearted apology – even just a hint of insincerity – can have a further deleterious effect on the organization's public image.
Beyond simple accountability, companies need to show a commitment to repairing negative fallout. It's even better when a company makes good on their actions without having to be legislated to do so, since this shows a corporate or social conscience on the part of the organization. This is another thing that BP did well after the oil spill. Helping to assist with the cleanup, paying fines as awarded and having a real presence in the communities affected, shows the public that despite an error, the organization wants to be a part of the solution.
This is also important with manufacturers that have later found that some aspect of a product is defective. Offering a recall to ensure public safety results in the public retaining faith in the goodwill of the company, and its desire to be regarded as honest and concerned about the public. This is especially important when it comes to pharmaceutical companies or car manufacturers, since these companies produce products that society really relies on to be safe. One only needs to consider Toyota's massive recalls in 2010, after vehicles started to exhibit braking complications, to understand why.
Stick It Out
Nothing is worse than when a person or organization makes all kinds of inflated promises but never actually follows through with them. Companies need to stay the course once a commitment has been made to repair faults, but that also means that organizations must be realistic and honest when it comes to making promises of what can be done to make things right.
BP's commitment to fixing the oil spill in the Gulf continued into 2012, which included activities involved in the cleanup and rehabilitation efforts, while attempting to set reasonable expectations for what can be done and how. BP's dedication hasn't gone unnoticed either. This organization has bounced back, somewhat, from the financial struggles that have been reflected in a recovering stock price.
Once an organization has owned up to a fault, communication should continue. Companies should allow the public to know exactly what is being done to remedy the situation, even once the initial panic has died down. The more the public is aware of what lengths an organization is going to, the more likely the organization will return to public favor, although this can be tricky. Companies need to be mindful that no communication feels contrived. This is why it's often best that reviews and commentaries are made by "real people" who are not seen as being biased and in favor of the company being represented, or that any advertising campaign is done once the company has started to regain momentum in the public's eye.
Organizations need to think like consumers. How will consumers realistically find the intended information? Companies must target consumers appropriately, whether that be through television commercials, online advertising, press releases, participation in media interviews or perhaps even publicly responding to negative reviews or commentary on websites that allow consumers to voice their opinions. Get the word out!
A little creativity or a sense of humor can go a long way when it comes to dealing with negative PR. In today's digital world, word of mouth can travel quickly as people take to social media and a variety of other forums for spreading public opinion. Some companies have almost adopted an "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality when it comes to dealing with negative reviews. One pizza shop in San Francisco actually printed some of the negative comments posted about the restaurant on T-shirts worn by the company's wait staff. One of these T-shirts boasted the not-so-appetizing statement: "The pizza was soooo greasy. I'm assuming this was in part due to the pig fat." Now that's definitely having a sense of humor about your organization's negative PR.
Fight for Your Right
When all else fails, fight. This is especially true when the statements made about an organization are not true. Think of Taco Bell and how the composition of the meat products used in the menu offerings recently came into question, amid a lawsuit claiming the company was mislabeling products. Taco Bell stood its ground and denied all of the damaging claims, even going so far as to file a countersuit. It then allowed consumers to come in and sample a taco for free so they could check out the quality for themselves. This also came with the launch of an advertising campaign to assist with getting the message out that the claims made in the lawsuit were incorrect. The result? The suit filed against Taco Bell was dropped.
The Bottom Line
One of the most readily available measures that organizations can employ to either avoid or reduce negative publicity is to aim for transparency. The more the public knows about how a company operates, the less likely a consumer or journalist will have any reason to go looking for dirt. This is not to say that all companies with ethical business practices will thrive, or that all companies with questionable business practices will fail. It just helps along the way if the public feels that a company isn't doing something questionable.
Patience is a virtue that all organizations should have as well. In our fickle society, opinions change, the news is forgotten and the next big scandal might take the public's mind off an organization's mishaps. Keep in mind that no organization is ever going to be able to please everybody all of the time, but the way that the general public feels about an organization's PR disasters is ultimately determined by the way the organization reacts to the allegations that have been made – true or otherwise.