A journalist recently smeared an organization I admire. Give a reporter a storyline, unearth some anecdotes, then generate supportive charts, and you have a front-page story. The article’s implied conclusions fit the liberal thirst for examples of regulatory capture, which are situations in which self-regulation by an industry creates supposedly lax regulation.
Yes, the selected stories were true, as was a damaging chart. But the graphic required selecting definitions that favored the storyline. And the mistakes in the story would not necessarily be apparent to lay readers.
Experts advise you be prepared for reputational damage before it occurs. Best practice is to understand where damage might come from and take steps to improve your brand to minimize risks and strengthen relationships to reduce damage. There is a reason why smart leaders hold proactive, off-record informational sessions with major influencers and invest in corporate social responsibility initiatives.
But then a damaging story is made public. Prepared or not, now what?
Some public relations firms suggest you stay silent, as continuing the discussion in public only keeps the story in the public view longer.
Some advisors even suggest going for a hard-hitting rebuttal.
Other firms suggest you get ahead of the story and offer a mea culpa that also lets you communicate a more favorable story about your brand.
How do you decide?
First, alert your stakeholders to what has happened. Better for them to be informed than surprised. That applies to employees, key customers, partners, bankers, and board members. Ideally, you have alerted them in advance to potentially bad news so that they read the article with a critical versus neutral eye. Tell them you will be back in touch with them as you work through your next steps.
Second, develop a scenario-based strategy. Imagine that it’s three years after the story broke. Explore several scenarios and their impacts on your organization:
- Ways customers may have behaved
- Ways competitors may have responded
- How regulators felt and ways they might have reacted
- How customers you may want to serve in the future have interpreted the article. Specifically, will a growth option be cut off?
Following this discussion, construct the worst-case scenario for your brand reputation and ask, “If this worst-case scenario happens, what will we wish we had done TODAY that could have prevented or at least softened the impact?”
- Option One: If the scenario suggests you ignore the article, let your stakeholders know you are not going to respond to the story, as it will only keep falsehoods in the public eye. Offer to answer any questions.
- Option Two: If the scenario suggests you issue a rebuttal, think again, unless you are rebutting published facts and data that are wrong. If the writer had doubts about his story, he would never have published it. So any “defense” on your part will be met with an even stronger “offense.”
- Option Three: If a thoughtful response will minimize future risks, write one in a way that defuses right-wrong debates.
If you follow Option Three, start by reading the article as outsiders may and identify the elements of truth in the story. Acknowledge the inherent limitations of your brand today in light of the world the reporter feels is “just.” Then write a response acknowledging what rings true about the story (“Yes, our brand is not perfect and we, like you, would like to overcome the issues raised). Identify the trade-offs, if you behaved as the article suggested you should act. Then discuss the road you are on to avoid such compromises so that you can create the future everyone wants to emerge. Invite others to help you.
Think about the brands that ignored or thumbed their noses at critics. Uber comes to mind, as well as the pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli (former CEO of Retrophin), who is on his way to jail.
Trump and Clinton are still debating election facts in public, with no winner in sight.
On the other side, we have Phil Knight who saved Nike’s brand from damage caused by the revelation of “sweat shop” labor conditions. Production overseas saves consumers money and has helped shift countries out of poverty. But, Knight commented, “I truly believe the American consumer doesn’t want to buy products made under abusive conditions.” His statement created the win-win. He then announced changes his company was making to achieve the goal of no abusive conditions.
United’s CEO, following a viral video of security dragging a passenger off a United flight, went through Option One, then Two, finally landing on Three. Option Three worked.
Stay silent but at risk? Try to win a debate? Or reduce your risks by demonstrating you appreciate the reporter’s concerns and are working to overcome them in a way far better than what the journalist recommends. To me, the third way is the least risky way if the reporter is a credible and influential voice.