26th Sep 2006, by Andrew Barr

Dealing and Handling Bad PR - When the Media Goes Bad

Due to the wonders of Google and various other search engines there seems to have been a massive increase in people finding out about the 10 Yetis Media Love Fest thanks to the wonderful world of when "the media goes bad".

To try and help people I have taken the newsletter I wrote about this subject last year (and is in the free newsletter section) and placed it on the blog so it can be found more easily (the majority of new visitors land on this blog).

Hope it helps, and don't forget... we are well versed in helping people who are under attack from the media, so give us a shout if you want to know more.

When PR Goes Bad - How To Deal With Bad PR

So far every newsletter has been rosy-nice and talked about successful ways of carrying out your marketing and public relations. Sometimes things don't always go to plan though and you get media attention for all the wrong reasons.

I have worked for a number of companies that have been very high profile for all the wrong reasons, from utility companies that kept causing power cuts in residential areas, right through to fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies whose products were being sourced from outside the UK by retailers and therefore not conforming to UK safety or quality standards.

In my experience the worse thing you can do when things go wrong is bury your head in the sand, and never just say, "no comment"! It makes you sound guilty straight away.

If you have never dealt with angry or aggressive media and you have the budget to do so, you may want to get specialist help from a PR company or freelancer (say for example, I dunno, someone like 10Yetis - you would be surprised at how in-expensive PR services are), but if your budget won't allow for this, then hopefully this newsletter will help.

The worst situation is where you did not have a clue what is about to happen and a journalist rings you out of the blue. Quite often they will leave it till fairly late in the day to give you the bad news as they work till late and they will expect you to do so to. No matter how much they pressure you for an immediate response, don't give it to them. Try to remain calm, get all the facts of the story that they have so far, and then ask them what their deadline is.

Undoubtedly they will say, "ASAP", but if you press them for a time limit you will usually have at least 15 minutes, and with most regional media they may have already gone to press so you have plenty more time. Some people try to convince them that there is no story there in the first place. On some occasions it may be true, but most journalists will dig deeper if you say that as they will suspect something is going on.

As soon as you get off the phone write down all the questions they have and then start putting together your response, contacting all the necessary people. A lengthy but handy thing I suggest to all clients is; when you have that quiet period, even if it is just for 5 minutes a week, try to put together an excel workbook called an "A-Z of Potential Questions". This workbook should have all the questions, good and bad, that you think your business may ever be asked as well as the best response. If you already have one of these when that nasty call comes you can use it to great effect.

Before you get back to the journalist have all the points you want to make about the situation written down in bullet point format. Also, have a list of around 5 things that you classify as Unique Selling points (USP's) about your business so if the opportunity arises you can try to turn it on its head and maybe even get some good points across.

When talking to the journalist don't be afraid of saying, "no I don't agree with what you said", or words to that effect. In the PR world we refer to a statement like this as a bridging point. A bridging point is a dismissive start to your response to a question that allows you to then revert back to a positive point about your business. I will try to give an example using a real life media interview I once did defending a utility company I represented;

Q: With 23,000 residential areas off supply as we speak, would this not suggest that your company has not invested enough in its electricity network and that those who said the American company who bought the business are only interested in asset stripping?

A: No, I don't agree with that (bridging statement), what I would say is that we are doing everything we can to get the electricity back on to those residents as quickly as possible and we will achieve this by using new equipment that has recently been invested in.

This is called an "open statement" as it tries to set up an obvious follow up question for the journalist which is to ask about the new equipment. This would then allow me to wax lyrical about all the money spent by our new company and avoid further questions that draw attention to the company's negative side.

Quite often if the enquiry has come from a print journalist they will accept a comment via email. I always make my statement response really clear by either typing it up in Word and attaching it with no other text in the Word doc, or, by putting "START OF STATEMENT" and "END OF STATEMENT" around the statement itself in the email.

If you are asked to call the journalist back then, unless you know the journalist well, don't go off on a tangent in your discussion. Keep it to the agreed points and don't add any personal comment or feelings. The old adage about, "nothing being off the record" is very true. I never go off the record unless the journalist asks me to, or unless I know the journalist very well.

If you have the pleasure of an enquiry from a radio journalist, again, don't panic. It is very similar to print in that you should be given time to prepare a response. Radio journalists are not allowed to go straight into a live on air interview without giving you reasonable prior warning.

Once everything has blown over, and it undoubtedly will (unless you do a "Ratner"; and say your products are rubbish), take the time to try and go back to the media and ask them what they think you could have done better and what they thought. Again, when I worked for a utility and we came under heavy criticism for lengthy power cuts following a storm, after the event when all had settled down, we arranged to meet the various journalists and ask them for feedback. Be prepared for the truth!

So just to sum up, when things don't go to plan:
+Don't bury your head in the sand
+Hold your hands up if it is an obvious mistake
+Don't try and cover things up un-necessarily
+Use your A-Z of potential questions and answers
+Remain calm and definitely don't get angry
+Never say, "no comment"
+Make statements clear and short
+When all has settled down, ask for feedback from the media

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