If your brand has ever had a difficult run-in with the media, it’s hard to take an organisation seriously when they claim “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. Particularly when dealt with the wrong way, an organisation can receive terrible publicity that can have a detrimental impact on the brand and business.
The good, the bad and the ugly.
In the age of social media, bad news travels fast. A brand’s first response will always be the one people remember, and if this comes from a place of frazzled urgency, you can find yourself in strife. United Airlines received more bad publicity than it could have bargained for this year, but it was the initial justification for its actions that truly disgruntled the public.
On April 9th 2017, a passenger was forcibly dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight after refusing to forfeit his seat for a staff member, losing his front teeth and becoming bloodied in the scuffle. This letter to United staff was released on the day of the incident:
“This situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help,” United CEO Oscar Munoz wrote. “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
It only took a day for the second letter to be released which refuted the actions taken and provided the deepest apologies to the passenger that was forcibly removed from the plane. Unfortunately, this was too little too late – the damage had been done.
A diamond in the rough.
It’s important to remember that it is possible to come back from condemnation. In late 2015, Airbnb came under fire with bad publicity when research revealing customers with “distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names.” That data was only compounded by reports on social media from travellers who experienced that discrimination first-hand, as well as a lawsuit over such actions.
Acting as the true hero the brand seeks to portray, its CEO released this letter which took a profound stance on the issue:
Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them. Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry. I take responsibility for any pain or frustration this has caused members of our community. We will not only make this right; we will work to set an example that other companies can follow.
And indeed it has. This branded indiscretion has resulted in Airbnb taking a stand against not only racial discrimination, but becoming a vocal advocate for marriage equality also.
Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word.
To be clear, brands will always be vulnerable to bad publicity, but mastering your rise from the ashes could be what saves your name (and your neck). As Airbnb so humbly showed, admitting to your mistakes and apologising is a good start if there are no legal implications.
So, what can you do to prevent hordes of villagers chasing you with pitchforks?
Test potential scenarios and put your plan in writing. Pick your spokespeople, your channels and your approach, and review your plan regularly to ensure it’s up to date. This may seem menial, but when your team is in shock about the meteor coming their way, you’ll be glad to have something that was prepared on a calmer, sunnier day. Acknowledge the situation, apologise to the effected parties, state your values and outline your plan of attack moving forward.
Bad publicity doesn’t have to have the last word. Who knows, you may just come out better for it in the end.
Even if you don’t have much experience in issues and crisis management, you’re probably still familiar with the basic steps involved in issues preparedness. It goes something like this: map out the possible scenarios, decide a sensible action plan for each, draft a Q&A, have a set of key messages, train your spokespeople and continuously monitor your key stakeholders and what’s happening in the media landscape in case you need to respond.
But even if you’ve followed all the rules, you have a Q&A document the size of a novel and know your key messages back to front, the reality is, when an issue arises, it still sends you into a short-term frenzy.
But why? It’s not through any fault of your own, planning helps, but each issue is different and will require a unique response.
Murphy’s law says the day an issue hits your subject matter expert is going to be on holiday, you need to find up-to-date proof points and source the answer to a really niche question that has never been posed before. And not only that, you are so busy fielding calls from media and monitoring the flood of comments on social media, that you have no time to craft a well thought through response. That’s the short term frenzy.
Then comes the ‘quick-fix’ stage – you’ve noticed a whole bunch of media coverage and tweets with factually incorrect information – you’ll need to fix this as well as proactively communicate the messages you want to get across.
It won’t be long before you regain control, in most cases this is all just a couple of hours of intense work for you and your team. But what if you could reduce this little frenzy altogether?
For those operating in issues-rich environments, the answer lies in long-term thinking.
One of our clients operates as a regulator in the forestry sector, an incredibly sensitive area ranging from the obvious environmental and ecological issues through to social and economic debates about the future of forest management and impact on our communities.
Before we began a corporate PR program for the client – involving a sustained proactive press office function – they would often get numerous passing mentions in negatively skewed stories and frequently found themselves correcting mistakes. As they’re also a complex organisation the media understandably struggled to correctly articulate the role they play.
With key messages in hand we set out on an education campaign putting the CEO in front of media, as well as third party government and not for profit influencers, to brief them on the organisation’s aim. We weren’t necessarily pitching stories, but when a stakeholder did get asked by a journalist to comment on the role of our client, or the media referenced them in articles, we had more confidence they’d get the message right. This is a long-term strategy and still an ongoing part of our program as forestry issues become more prevalent.
After just a few months the strategy started paying off – key messages were appearing left right and centre and influencers even started delivering messages for us. There were rarely factual errors and the stories became balanced.
Alongside the education campaign we also ran some proactive communications streams, focusing on the outcomes the organisation was seeking to achieve for the industry. None of this is rocket-science, but the point I’m trying to make is that many organisations treat issues as one-off occurrences rather than a long-term challenge.
While I agree scenario planning is important, what’s actually more essential is having clear key messages about the organisation and a proactive communications plan to deliver these. But most importantly – ensure you’re regularly educating key stakeholders and media on your organisation’s strategy.
At least when an issue fires up you can be sure you won’t need any quick-fixes, the media are less likely to flood your inbox because they‘re already informed and you’ll have an army of third party influencers delivering your messages for you.