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Tips for Dealing with Bad Publicity

Updated on February 29, 2016
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I'm a business communications coach who teaches writing, speaking, and leadership skills to adults in the midst of a career change.

Something unexpected has happened and your organization is involved. The media has shown up on your doorstep looking for an answer, a response, some sort of comment. Is your organization ready to deal with a public relations disaster?

How should your company deal with bad publicity? Here are some strategies to get your company's reputation back on track.

Act quickly to prevent bad publicity from piling up.

If your organization makes a mistake, you need to act quickly before the bad news lands on your customers' doorsteps.
If your organization makes a mistake, you need to act quickly before the bad news lands on your customers' doorsteps.

Is your organization prepared to deal with a public relations nightmare? Having a good public relations strategy means having a contingency plan for how to cope with bad press, unfortunate events and negative exposure. Here are some tips to help you deal with an unexpected call from the media.

What could possibly go wrong?

When things are going well -- customers are satisfied with the service they are receiving, your company is a member of the Better Business Bureau, you are getting positive online reviews -- it’s hard to imagine that something could go wrong.

Depending on the nature of your business and the number of people it employs, your organization could face an unexpected public relations crisis such as:

  • An unpopular policy needing to be quickly reversed (i.e.: no breastfeeding in the retail stores)
  • An unsatisfied customer complaining to the media
  • A disgruntled former employee revealing trade secrets and other inner workings of your organization
  • Your company experiencing a service interruption or blackout that angers thousands of users
  • A human rights complaint being filed against your organization and/or an employee of your organization
  • A lawsuit
  • An employee being arrested and charged with a serious crime


One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.

— Eleanor Roosevelt

How should your company deal with bad publicity?

If you are in the midst of a public relations disaster caused by a mistake your organization made, here's an easy to remember action plan: Dress up and 'fess up after the mess up.

Dress up means be prepared, polished and professional when the media shows up on your doorstep.

'Fess up means be honest about what happened. Don't hide; get in front of the media before someone else starts explaining (or complaining about) what happened. It is your crisis to deal with.

Remember, sometimes it's not what you did, it's what you did next that really matters. How you handle a mistake is often more important than the actual mistake itself.

Running away in the middle of the night is not the right way to deal with bad publicity!
Running away in the middle of the night is not the right way to deal with bad publicity!

The first thing you need to do once you realize that something has gone wrong is to start working on fixing the actual problem itself, not the media crisis it has generated. Hopefully you were alerted to the problem before the media started calling you for a response. (There is nothing worse than finding out that a client, customer or former employee has gone to the media to complain about your organization without letting you know.)

When a potential public relations disaster has been discovered, your organization must be:

Prepared. Ideally your organization should already have a media plan in place that includes roles and responsibilities (i.e.; Who from your organization will be speaking to the media?), contact details for the spokesperson and the spokesperson’s back-up, briefing notes on the organization and a few draft question and answer sheets that address potential concerns.

Swift. You need to respond to the crisis within 24 hours of the word getting out that something has gone wrong. As the American humorist Mark Twain once said “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” If you haven’t responded within 24 hours of the news breaking, the general public will have already drawn its own conclusions about what happened.

Truthful. Be as honest and open as you can with the media. Responses that are vague and evasive will not make the media go away. Avoid responses such as “No comment.”If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and promise that you will find out and then deliver that information as quickly as possible. Keep in mind, however, that in some situations, such as when a publication ban is in place, the individuals involved are minors or a lawsuit is already before the courts, you may be severely limited in what you can say. Don't be afraid to remind the media of these external constraints on your ability to answer some questions.

Responsible. Avoid shifting the blame when something goes wrong. If you incorrectly name another party as being the source of the problem, you could face an expensive defamation suit later on. Identify and speak only to the parts of the problem that you are directly involved with. Tell the media what you plan to do, or have already done, to correct the problem.

Informative. Provide the public with all the facts and information that they need to know. For example, if a product needs to be returned, make sure the media gets all the details straight so that customers know what to do. Make sure that if the public has further questions or concerns, there’s an easy way for them to get in touch with your organization, whether on your toll-free customer service line, by e-mail or web chat, or on your various social media channels. For example, you can let the public know that you will be posting progress updates on your Twitter and Facebook pages as the problem is being fixed.

Consistent. A consistent message from your organization about the problem and how you are dealing with it is critical for regaining the public’s trust. Ensure that everyone in your organization is aware of how the problem is being addressed so that they can respond to customer queries and concerns in a fair, transparent and consistent manner.

The last bit of advice when dealing with a public relations challenge is to be creative and optimistic. Turn your media nightmare into an opportunity. News outlets love to report on crises, drama, conflict -- anything that gets people’s attention. If the media is now suddenly interested in your company, use this unexpected attention to reassert your business values, affirm your commitment to your customers and build your reputation as an honest organization takes responsibility for its mistakes.

When you see something bad about a business in the news, do you always believe it?

See results
What will the public see when they turn on the 6 o'clock news? Plan ahead for media emergencies.
What will the public see when they turn on the 6 o'clock news? Plan ahead for media emergencies. | Source

© 2012 Sally Hayes

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