When bad press happens to good people: Tips for survival and recovery

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The press (that’s us!) covers every subject under the sun, from America to zebras. They publish stories intended to illuminate, educate, enlighten and entertain. And perhaps most importantly, they shine a light on mishaps and scandals, bringing to public attention misdeeds that would otherwise go on unnoticed and unchecked.

That’s all well and good for the public’s edification, but what about the subjects who get "exposed"? How do businesses and organizations that come under intense press scrutiny, from the smallest organizational gaffes to full-blown Enron-esque disasters, deal with a tarnished reputation and negative public opinion? According to the experts below, it’s all about proactive communication plans.

Don’t react, act first

Peter ter Weeme, principal with Junxion Strategy Inc., a strategic communications company in Vancouver, declares it’s all about taking control of the situation.

“Be honest. Be forthright. Be correct,” he says. “Acknowledge that the event happened, show what you are doing to address the situation, and indicate when you will report back next. Build trust with the media and stakeholders. In the meantime, a great deal of effort needs to be put into understanding the facts at hand.”

ter Weeme advises that this last point, knowledge of the facts, is crucial before an organization embarks on any in-depth, public relations "damage control" mission. Further to that, he suggests that different types of organizations will receive different treatment from the public during a PR crisis. According to him, nonprofits tend to get more leeway in these situations than for-profits.

“The public generally trusts nonprofits more than government or business, so these organizations often get more respect,” he says. Still, setting the record straight should be of utmost priority, regardless of the type of organization involved.

Kim Cochrane, a communications consultant for ACS and Buck Consultants Toronto and the VP of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Toronto chapter, concurs with ter Weeme on the above points.

“I think if a charitable organization receives some bad press, the tone of the response may be slightly softer or controlled, but the messaging and type of response should be the same,” she says. “Organizations need to come forward and acknowledge the negative media coverage. Depending on the situation, they may also want to respond to the media in the form of a media release or a news conference with a senior leader.”

But it’s also essential to keep employees informed. In fact, the experts say that internal communication is just as important as the external component. In some instances, more so.

Keep the family informed

Cochrane explains that it’s important for organizations to keep their workforce up to date with the most detailed, factual information and what they should expect from the fallout of the press reportage.

“Internal messages [should] be more detailed and focused on specific employee concerns and [should] explain the context of the situation and what it means to the organization and the business as a whole,” she says. “They will definitely want to develop employee communication tactics [such as] meetings, web site messages and newsletter information...that addresses and explains what the situation means for the company and the employees and the next steps that the organization is going to take.”

Back in Vancouver, ter Weeme advises much the same route for workforce relations.

“In addition to ensuring employees have received factual information on the event, just as you would provide this to the public, your internal communications need to reassure employees, tell them where to find additional information and ensure that they know who the official organizational spokespeople are,” he says.

And reliable spokespeople are key to ensuring recovery from a bad press scenario.

Bad Canuck press history

One of the legendary incidents of bad press history in Canada involved the Red Cross and the “tainted blood” scandal revelations of the 1980s and 1990s. That organization took a shellacking from the press and the public and was censured by the scathing 1997 Krever Commission report.

As a result, the report called for a single, integrated entity to be responsible and accountable for the safety and security of Canada’s blood supply system. Out of this, the nonprofit Canadian Blood Services (CBS) was born, taking control of the blood supply away from the Red Cross.

This new organization put into practice certain communications measures to ensure the public was kept well-informed.

Good talking heads

In Ottawa, Anne Trueman, media relations manager at CBS’ national headquarters, outlines some of her organization’s communications strategies and how they helped Canadians regain trust in the blood supply.

“We have designated spokespersons across the country...and subject mater experts who are fully briefed on issues,” Trueman says. “[But] if you are going to have several people act as spokespeople, as we require because of the expansive geographical territory we cover, you have to ensure that everyone is ‘singing from the same song sheet’.”

In order to do that, CBS stresses the following communications principles:

  • consistent messaging
  • agreed-upon media relations protocols
  • training for all regional media spokespeople to clearly and concisely deliver information to the media
  • having a crisis communications plan available to guide the organization through reputational, organizational or environmental crises
  • providing frontline staff with talking points for specific issues and keeping them generally briefed on how to speak to media, stakeholders, or members if a media crisis occurs.

Trueman believes that transparency is the best policy to deal with, and prevent, bad press.

“[We] strive to be as transparent as possible and to deal honestly and decisively on important issues,” she says. “There are some issues we can anticipate that concerns the media, and we would prepare thorough responses to those questions in advance. Our thinking is that [the media] will get the information they want with or without us, so we might as well get our side of the story out first.”

Trueman says that CBS would also correct any erroneous information in the media immediately via internal and external communications.

As a result of these practices, Canadian Blood Services has indeed effectively reassured the Canadian public that their blood supply is now in safer hands than it was, and put media attention of blood scandals behind them.

Preventive measures

Regardless of the sector, all organizations need a good communications plan and staff to prevent bad press.

ter Weeme recommends they follow these four general points:

  • uphold high standards of business practice
  • establish clear internal lines of communication
  • implement an issues management program
  • identify and train media spokespeople

And for Cochrane, there is one surefire way to deal with or avoid future media debacles: plan ahead.

“Each organization needs to receive solid counsel from public relations and communication professionals throughout the year to ensure that they have a solid PR and communications plan in place. This includes the development of a crisis plan to ensure that when a difficult situation arises, they will have a plan in place to address and overcome it,” she says.

Sound advice...and a good sound bite, too.

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is president of WordLaunch professional writing services in Toronto. He can be reached at andy@wordlaunch.com

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