Public Relations

How Businesses Can Turn Negative Press Into Positive PR

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In business, few challenges loom as large or as daunting as negative press. Whether it’s a product recall, a damaging expose or even a high-profile lawsuit, negative press has the potential to erode the public’s trust, damage a company’s reputation and threaten the bottom line. 


Regardless of what caused the negative coverage—or how true it is—it’s vital for businesses to have a strategic crisis communications plan in place that mitigates reputational harm and preserves long-term value. In this article we’ll explore strategies and tactics businesses can employ to weather the storm of negative press and rebuild trust with consumers, stakeholders and the broader public.

What is Negative Press?

There are three principal sources that spur on negative media coverage:

Criticism

General criticism of a company or its employees can be interpreted as negative coverage. For instance, a company investing in a certain vertical or launching a new product may be interpreted by some reporters as a foolish decision, or just wrong for the company. This is especially common in business press, as journalists will be looking to provide commentary that influences investment and partnership decisions for their readers. 

Criticism doesn’t mean that the articles are wrong inherently, it means that their opinions are not aligning with that of the company. Even if the coverage is factually accurate and is just providing that commentary, the results can still be damaging to a brand and impact its bottom line.

Scandals

Company scandals may be the largest cause of negative coverage in the media. The severity of scandals in a company can range dramatically, but any story, big or small, can have a big impact if covered in the wrong angle, especially if proper messaging isn’t prepared in advance of that crisis to be able to tell the company’s side of the story, or if the company is silent in general as a scandal breaks. 

Again, this coverage can be completely accurate, simply relaying the facts of a scandal to a broader audience, but it will still be perceived as negative, since the topic being covered is negative. Perhaps a company executive was found to be embezzling money, or the company had previously lied about something that it was working on. No matter the crisis, it’ll probably come out to the public at some point, and it could cause genuine problems moving forward.

Misinformation

There are also instances where inaccurate information is published outright. The vast majority of journalists are incredibly devoted to their craft, and will go through every possible extra step to make sure that their articles are factual and accurate. However, every human makes mistakes, and false information can be published in 

This is becoming increasingly common as journalists are stretched thinner than ever before and editor ranks are slashed thin. There are also some journalists that may stretch the truth a little bit in the hopes of attracting more attention or getting more clicks. Having misinformation about a company can harm in any number of ways, and needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

How Does Negative Press Impact a Company?

One of the core functions of PR is conducting outreach to journalists to get coverage for their clients. Preparation for this process takes care and attention, to find the best possible reporters that are most relevant or a new item, and then crafting a pitch personalized for that journalist to get them engaged in the idea. 

That being said, the function is called media relations for a reason: it’s all about relationships. Pitches that are AI generated will likely fall on deaf ears. With most journalists receiving upwards of hundreds of pitches every day, nothing could turn them off quicker than receiving one that clearly wasn’t written by human hands. They take time in their jobs, and when PR professionals don’t show the same respect, they will be ignored. 

Additionally, when finding relevant reporters, AI can be a first big step to see if reporters covered any articles discussing a relevant topic to an organization, but it may be difficult for it to account for nuances in the research. This includes if a reporter has changed jobs but hasn’t announced it yet, shifted beats, or perhaps just covered one or two stories on a relevant topic but doesn’t normally cover that area. Humans should still be verifying all reporter contacts before outreach begins to ensure no irrelevant pitches are sent out, but AI can once again be a great first step in that process. 

Damage of Reputation

Depending on the subject of the negative story that’s being published, the reputation of a company or executive can be tarnished as a result of negative coverage. Consumers might think that a company doesn’t care about them, investors may think that leadership isn’t well-suited to continue to lead the company as is, or that because a single product is unreliable, their entire line is unreliable. 

The true impact of a damaged reputation can range depending on how the company was perceived before a crisis, as well as how big and established the organization is. Bigger companies may lose revenue, but be able to weather the storm in the long run, especially if they had built goodwill before the crisis developed. A smaller company or start-up, with perhaps only one product that is embroiled in a scandal, may not have enough capital in reserve to withstand the blowback, and may find themselves struggling to survive at all.

Loss of Trust

There are also some instances where customers and investors can lose trust in an organization, its leadership, and its services, following negative press coverage. Trust is a difficult to measure element that plays a massive role in how consumers and investors alike spend their money. They want to pour into a company that they know is reliable, consistent, and shares their values. Seeing something written or broadcasted by a source that is trustworthy to them can make all the difference in destroying the faith that they once had, or make sure that no faith can ever be developed in the first place. Trust is something that can take years, even decades, to build properly, and only takes a moment to lose. This can be one of the quickest outcomes to receiving negative PR.. 

Decrease in Sales or Revenue

This damaging of reputation and loss of trust can naturally lead to a decline in sales. Customers want to engage with companies and brands that they appreciate, and if they feel that they have a choice between a company that they’ve only seen positive things written about them, or a company that only has negative things written about them, that decision is going to be easy for them. Additionally, if negative press convinced them that a product doesn’t work as well as a competitor’s, why would they continue to engage? This makes the process of turning that negative coverage into positive press even more imperative.

How to Turn Negative Press into Positive PR?

Step 1: Assess the Situation

Monitor Negative Press

The first step to counteracting any bad press is to make sure an accurate picture of the landscape is being painted. Who is writing? How many articles are there? Is it one outlet, or are others picking it up? What is the story that they’re telling? 

Answering all of these questions begins with monitoring for the negative coverage. Companies should always have a group monitoring for coverage and assessing it, so they can stay ahead of all mentions, whether positive or negative. It’s important to put systems in place for this well before a crisis begins. There are automated tools, such as Google Alerts and Talkwalker, but having somebody do the research themselves and see what conversations are like can make all the difference.

Analyze the Root Cause

Once this coverage is captured, it’s important to pore through it, analyze what the common themes are, and figure out where the negative coverage is coming from. Perhaps there was an issue with a released product that caused harm, or maybe an executive was misquoted in a story that is causing some blowback. It could also be possible that it’s just a disgruntled journalist publishing misinformation. Whatever the reason, an effective reaction strategy can not be developed until the core issue for the negative press is firmly identified; a company needs to know exactly what they’re reacting to before they start to react.

Step 2: Craft a Response Strategy

Once all of the coverage is gathered, and the core issue is identified, a comprehensive strategy can be developed to begin reversing the narrative:

Acknowledge the Mistake

The first step after a company scandal comes to light is being prepared to acknowledge the mistake or issue that caused the negative press. Transparency is always the best policy, and attempting to further cover up a negative story that has already been published is just begging for larger problems down the road. Some of the biggest PR snafus in the past can be attributed to companies who were caught doing the wrong thing, but refused to admit it when initially caught. Deciding whether or not to come clean can make the difference between having just a slight temporary dip in sales that can be recovered from, or even tanking down the company entirely.

Provide Correct Information

For instances where no mistake was made, it’s important to be prepared with all of the accurate information to correct inaccuracies that are being publicized. These clarifications need to not come across as defensive, but rather informative. Overly aggressive corrections can turn away people from coming back around to a company’s way of thinking, even if it is the truth, and stakeholders will likely side with the negative story instead. The truth is always the strongest element in times of negative press, and a company needs to trust that it will win out in the long run, rather than getting desperate and causing more problems by being pushy.

Respond Promptly 

Getting a company response out into the world following a negative story, especially during a time of larger crises, is imperative to reversing the narrative. The more time that a company is silent after a negative story breaks, the more time that the negative piece of coverage is considered to be the complete story. Stakeholders need to have an opportunity to hear the company’s side of the story, but that story obviously needs to be present in order for it to reach anyone’s ears. 

This doesn’t mean that the first message developed should be the one that’s pushed out to the masses. It’s imperative that time is still taken to think clearly and effectively, and make sure the most measured approach is taken before an even bigger mistake is made. Just keep in mind the importance of expediency in the moments immediately following 

The biggest advantage in responding quickly is in being prepared for all manners of crises before they crop up. Obviously a company can’t anticipate every single issue that’s going to develop, but a communications team can certainly prepare canned strategies to approach a manner of issues to make sure they aren’t caught flat-footed when the time comes. Even just knowing the chain of command can help to streamline teams that may be scrambling after negative press is published.

Address the Concern

It’s important that the core concern that stakeholders have following negative coverage is addressed clearly. There shouldn’t be any unanswered questions following an effective response to a scandal. 

If the audience’s trust is diminished in a company leader, explain why that executive is still strong and is the right person to lead the organization moving forward. If there are doubts sown about the efficacy or performance of a product, point towards its strengths and case studies detailing how it works and how it benefits them. Facing these concerns head-on will help to put them behind the ongoing conversations quicker, whereas lingering questions will continue to nag until they’re answered.

Highlight Successes

The developed strategy should also be sure to point towards the good work that a company has done, rather than focusing exclusively on the negative story that’s being told. 

The entire response should not be focused on talking about all of the great things a company or executive team has done, but there should be some notes that point in that direction to make sure that stakeholders come away from a reactive message with a positive thought. 

If all of the focus is made on harping on the negative story that was covered, the key audience members will forget that anything good is happening at the company at all. Additionally, it gives the negative sources all of the power in controlling the narrative, allowing them to influence the story. It’s easy to get engrossed in a negative story, and even customers that are big fans of a company can forget the positives in a moment of crisis, so wresting control back of the story and reminding everyone of the positives will help to set out the next step forward.

Step 3: Communicate with Public

Connect with the Media

Despite all of the changes that have happened in the world in terms of how individuals receive and consume their news and learn about goings on, traditional media is still one of, if not the most, effective way to get a message out to the masses. Naturally this also means that it can have some of the greatest impact in changing perceptions about a company or its executive team  following negative coverage. One only needs to look at the speed at which negative coverage spreads from traditional sources to realize how important it is to reengage with them in order to start getting positive coverage. 

Connecting with these reporters is all about building strong relationships, spending the time to laser focus on media members that cover relevant areas, and honing pitches to be catered specifically for them. Reporters will always respect outreach that is clearly designed specifically for them, rather than using a scattershot approach and hoping that anybody just picks up a news release or pitch. This takes more time, but is more than worth it in the long run. 

Negative perceptions can possibly open the door to more connections with reporters who are interested in learning about a company at its lowest point, providing the chance for trained company spokespeople to flip the script and explain to those journalists all of the good elements of an organization.

Engage with Customers

Connecting with influential media can’t replace going directly to stakeholders that have already been welcomed into a company’s ecosystem. Existing customers are likely to be the ones most significantly impacted by an instance that would lead to negative coverage, and being able to reach out to them without a journalist or other source mincing messaging or taking it out of context can have a major difference. 

This can be done through existing communication channels that should be established well before a crisis situation, including social media or company newsletters. These messages can be designed specifically to appeal to the concerns that are being shared by the most trusted customers, and give a chance to tell the organization’s side of the story. The downside is clear in that messaging coming directly from the affected company will appear biased, but if a trusted and transparent channel is established before a crisis, it can be just as effective as other means of outreach.

Build Relationships with Influencers

Plugging in with the newsmakers of the day on social media is also imperative to change this perception. Investing time in researching who the key influencers are that connect with the key stakeholders that you need to reach is often well worth it. Influencers have become leaders that have a direct connection with their audiences, and the trust that they’ve built with those audiences is unmatched by many other news sources, making them invaluable partners when trying to change perception and get positive momentum. 

Additionally, these sorts of connections can generate content that appears more authentic than traditional media, perhaps being even more effective in rebuilding trust or restoring reputations that need to be improved. So while they may have a smaller reach than some other avenues, the individuals that are reached by those messages are in many cases more likely to believe them, being a stronger influence on changing the narrative around an organization.

Examples of Negative PR

Many companies have struggled with negative press that they’ve needed to address. For instance, in 2015, Volkwagen was found to have been faking the results for government-mandated emissions tests on its vehicles, saying they were more environmentally friendly than they actually were in reality. This resulted in approximately $30 billion in fines for the company, and left their image bruised in the eyes of investors and the public.

Despite being pushed to the brink, the company was able to reverse course, shifting its priorities and publicizing its work to become more green. They were able to take their known shortcomings in that area to attract additional media attention to their renewed efforts, and flipped the script in public perception. 

Another recent example is Theranos, a diagnostic tool company that overpromised on the capabilities of its tests and their efficacy. This activity led the company to being valued incredibly high, receiving millions in investor money, and being seen as a hero for consumers needing new options for better care.

That all changed when it came to light that their tests actually weren’t based in any real science, and weren’t able to identify any diseases, completely reversing everything positive that they had earned. In Theranos’ instance, however, they weren’t able to reverse the reputation that they had sowed for themselves, as they continued to double down on their position until it was too late to save the company.

Our Approach at Channel V Media

For any company struggling with negative press coverage, we adjust our approach for the specific circumstances that they’re in. We know that there is no cookie cutter solution, and turning negative perceptions into positive press isn’t easy. Our team, however, has experience in turning the narrative around in a number of different circumstances and across industries. We have peerless abilities in creating messaging that cuts straight to the core of a story, and know how to reach the influential media that matter in creating new, positive discussions. We also don’t look for just a quick fix, we look to build a media relations machine that is ready for the long-term positive coverage needed to help rebuild a positive reputation. Our company’s reputation hinges on restoring your company’s reputation, and we take that work seriously. 

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