Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying: “When someone hits you, hit back twice as hard.”
Nevermind that violence is never the answer. But even in a metaphorical sense, “hitting back” is rarely the right course of action. Aggression is a sure way to escalate an already unpredictable situation.
This is certainly true in the rough-and-tumble realm of media exposure. Reach a certain level of success and you’re virtually certain to attract negative press coverage, deservedly or not. It’s how you respond to the inevitable that defines you.
Take lessons from people and companies that have successfully navigated bad press. Like Asiaciti Trust and Fidelity Corporate Services Limited, which both got caught up — alongside a dozen other international law firms and fiduciary enterprises — in the Pandora Papers release of 2021. Or Burger King, which faced a public relations crisis when a major franchisee refused to stop doing business in Russia. Or the countless academics pilloried for unpopular opinions despite their institutions’ supposed commitment to the free exchange of ideas.
Here’s what you can learn from them. And why you should prepare for the possibility of negative press now, before it’s too late.
1. Have a Statement Ready
Don’t confuse your response statement with a press release. It’s important to know how to write a good press release, but this is not the time. Press releases don’t read well in emergencies.
Instead, you need to get out a crisis response statement, and fast. Time is of the essence here, because when one negative story appears, more tend to be close behind.
Template this statement before the crisis strikes, then fill in the specifics as soon as you understand the scope of the situation. Release it publicly on your website and social media properties. Make sure the person and/or publication responsible for the story gets a copy too — it’s possible they’ll run a follow-up or update noting your response.
2. Tell Your Side of the Story, Quickly
Your initial response is a placeholder. The next step is to issue a point-by-point response to the specific facts of the story. You can do this on digital properties that you control, such as your social channels and website, but you’ll want to go further and try to drum up positive earned media as well.
3. Reach Out to Sympathetic Media
For that, turn to media personalities — including bloggers, social media influencers, and video content creators — who might sympathize with your side of the story. As credible filters that the public presumes to be neutral or at least fair, they lend legitimacy to your response. A single positive news item, however brief, about the issue that attracted negative attention is worth more than your own in-house response.
4. Highlight the Good You’re Doing
Don’t focus exclusively on responding to the issue in question to the detriment of your brand image, which will endure (for better or worse) long after the headlines fade.
Take the opportunity to position your firm as a positive force in your industry and community. If you’re already doing charitable work or making community-focused investments, tout these immediately and double down if you’re able. Otherwise, identify opportunities to give back and let the public know about your plans — a perfect chance to practice your press release skills.
5. Lift Up Positive Stories and Voices Within Your Organization
Show the softer side of your organization by lifting up the most interesting, diverse voices within it. Or talk about how you’ve helped your employees live better, more comfortable lives. Or feature stories about employees giving back to their own communities.
However you do it, the goal remains the same: showing that you care about more than just your profit margins.
6. Show You’ve Learned a Lesson
It’s not easy to be humble. But when you’re dealing with persistent negative media coverage, it’s time to swallow your pride.
You can’t truly move on from an episode like this without showing you’ve learned from it. That’s what companies as diverse as Burger King and Asiaciti Trust did in response to negative stories about them. They identified the issue or behavior that attracted attention, corrected it, and publicly showed how that had been done.
Get All Hands on Deck — Without Getting Your Hands Dirty
Responding to negative media coverage requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, especially if that coverage mushrooms into a legitimate public relations crisis.
What it doesn’t require is a down-in-the-mud approach. It’s quite the opposite. You want to respond effectively, persuasively, and forcefully (if need be) without getting your hands dirty.
You don’t want your response to a potential crisis to create a crisis of its own, perhaps one bigger and more destructive to your brand than the initial dust-up.
We’ve seen how organizations like Asiaciti Trust, Fidelity Corporate Services Limited, and Burger King successfully managed bad media coverage in the recent past. Their experiences were their own, but you can certainly draw lessons from them. After all, you could find yourself in similar circumstances sooner than you think.