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Responding To Negative Publicity

It was once famously said by circus promoter P.T Barnum that “There is no such thing as bad publicity”. Whilst an enduring notion, and perhaps true in select examples such as drumming up attention for band of travelling oddities, in the world of Public Relations this is of course far from the truth. Just ask the business owners of Salisbury, whereby some businesses have seen up to an 80% decrease in footfall in the aftermath of the Russian poisoning scandal. Companies can live and die by their public perception, this makes managing any negative publicity key to future successes.

Reputation management is now a vital element of a strong public relations strategy and this is magnified by the fact that we are living in a digital age. Information is accessible at the very fingertips of potential customers. Bad publicity can spread like wildfire with help of social media sites, and although unlikely to be rocked by a major scandal, smaller businesses also have to act decisively in order to nip any bad publicity in the bud.

When it comes to reputation management, a general rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “What would Sir Philip Green do in this situation?” and then do the complete opposite. Run a national staple of a country such as BHS into the ground costing thousands of people their jobs.. don’t jet out to Monaco soon after and get pictured on your private superyacht. A journalist publicly questions your company’s accounts.. don’t go on a expletive-filled tirade accusing them of being illiterate. You get the picture, but for a more encompassing view, here’s our step-by-step guide to managing negative publicity.


Step 1: Act before it becomes a problem.

Always be on the lookout for any potential issues which could result in bad publicity. Have any customers asked for refunds due to a product being sub-standard? Are there murmurings from discontent staff? If so, do what is necessary to resolve the issue before it escalates.

Step 2: Be ready.

Although you may have safeguards in place, bad publicity can be unpredictable in nature, accept this fact and don’t be shocked or caught cold when situations arise. Not all companies will have a PR team, but be prepared to assume the role if needed.

Step 3: Act quickly and decisively.

Ignoring the negative PR won’t make it simply go away. Failure to address the situation will only make things worse as it fuels speculation. This is your chance to mitigate as much damage as possible. Respond swiftly to the situation, apologise where necessary, and offer a solution to the aggrieved parties.  

Step 4: Appropriate response.

Is the bad publicity justified? If so, then everything possible should be done within the business to rectify the situation. Improving public opinion is all well and good, but it is crucial that the root of the issue is fixed and can’t rear its head again.   

Step 5: Consistency is key.

Ensure that a clear and consistent message is being put out by an organisation. Staff should be briefed as to the company’s response to the situation. Get everyone pulling in the same direction. If staff are left in the dark, and an inconsistent message is being purveyed, then this will only add to the uncertainty.

Step 6: Keep people updated.

Just as it is important to keep staff informed, the same is also true for customers and business associates. New, helpful information should be relayed in order to build trust and shut down rumours.

Step 7: Your side of the story.

Are people misconstruing events or spreading untruths through social media and the press? Calmly counter them with your account of the situation and dispel the inaccuracies.

Step 8: Distress Signal!

If at any point you feel truly overwhelmed and are really up the creek without a paddle, remember, there are PR professionals ready and waiting to save your public image in your hour of need. Getting in touch with experienced, battle-hardened PR experts may be the best move you can make for your business when faced with a wave of bad publicity.

Step 9: Resolution.

What needs to be done to draw a line under the situation? A change of suppliers may be necessary, a full and formal apology to customers in order, or even offering those affected some form of compensation. Time to put this bad publicity to bed and start rebuilding your brand image.

Bare in mind that sometimes bad publicity is unavoidable, particularly in the customer service industry. Customers may take to social media or go to the press, resulting in a snowball effect, when the issue could have been resolved on the spot. This does not mean that you are practicing bad business but you must respond accordingly. Deal with the situation, attempt to put it behind you, and most importantly of all, learn from the experience. If changes need to be made then be certain to implement them. Use dealing with negative PR as an opportunity for growth, amending possible flaws, and being better than you were before.

KFC hit rock-bottom in February 2018, being forced to close 900 UK restaurants after running out of chicken. However, they responded quickly, decisively and transparently with a large helping of humour for the situation. By the end of 2018 they were scooping up marketing awards for their “FCK” campaign created in the midst of the chicken crisis and their approval rating was as high as ever in the UK.

Looking back at the P.T Barnum quote from earlier, perhaps it’s better to say “There is certainly such thing as bad publicity, but if you respond well, you can potentially turn it in your favour.” Not quite got the same ring to it I know.


Thank you for reading.


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