It can arise from a long-simmering situation or come out of nowhere. You or your company is being attacked or criticized in public.
The way you handle a negative story can make all the difference. Here’s how to respond without fanning the flames of a negative situation:
Don’t hide. In many cases, a lack of response will be seen as a validation of the criticisms or, at best, an information vacuum. The sooner the response, the easier it will be to control the situation. Yet a speedy reaction is often difficult. In a high-stakes situation where the facts are unclear, say so, but refute any untruths and pledge to provide supporting information as quickly as possible.
But don’t dignify baseless rumors.
One exception to the above is the case of an unsubstantiated rumor, where you risk calling more attention to it by responding. The same is true of an Internet troll. In that case, let the community handle blatant misbehavior, foul language, or abusive comments.
Let your advocates defend you.
In that vein, if you have trusted clients or customers willing to comment in your defense, by all means, let them. The essence of reputation is what others say about you in public, so third parties, even those who are not 100 percent objective, are your allies.
It’s natural to feel emotional or even use defensive language when attacked, particularly if things get personal. When accused of copying a competitor’s intellectual property, a client drafted a lengthy defense on his website that referred to “slander” and “lies.” We ultimately convinced him that the post might raise more questions than it answered, particularly for site visitors with no knowledge of the situation. If you can’t be objective (and it’s hard when it’s your business), seek objective advice.
Ask for equal time.
Most legitimate websites or news sources will give you the opportunity to respond to a questionable story. Where facts or details are wrong, your smartest approach will be to calmly insist on your right to set the record straight. Don’t threaten or bully; appeal to the journalist’s desire for accuracy. No one wants to get it wrong.
Use objective facts and figures.
A convincing response usually involves statistics or objective facts and cites sources. Where possible, quote third parties. Corporate recognition, ratings, and recommendations can be useful in making your case.
If you’re at fault, apologize.
If your company has made a mistake, admit it and offer a prompt and sincere apology. Avoid evasive or legalistic language like, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended.” Take responsibility. Then, take steps to fix the situation or make amends.
[RELATED: Get advanced brand journalism tips from Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela.]
Look for the opportunities.
Public criticism can be a gift in disguise. Think about whether it could be an opportunity to remedy a problem or improve your business offering. If appropriate, thank your critics, and take advantage of the opening to tout the fix.
Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw
Communications. She has been named one of the public relations
industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. A version of this story
originally appeared on her agency's ImPRessions blog.