How to Handle and Avoid Negative Publicity

Author: Candice Landau

Candice Landau

Candice Landau

11 min. read

Updated April 9, 2024

We’ve all heard of at least one social media disaster story—whether that’s the NRA posting a pro-gun tweet right after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, or Gap’s somewhat insensitive tweet encouraging those caught up in Hurricane Sandy to do some online shopping—and the reality is, these social media disasters happen.

Sometimes they’re honest mistakes, other times they could easily have been avoided.

While big companies like Gap and the NRA can more easily bounce back, a PR disaster for a smaller company could put it out of business, or at the very least have an impact on revenue and tarnish the brand for years to come.

The question then is, what do you do when your business is thrust into the spotlight for negative reasons?

Because PR companies have to advise clients on exactly these matters, and because they typically have a good understanding of how social media mishaps can affect a business, we’ve asked a well-known PR agency to give us insight into how to handle things like social media and marketing disasters.

From reactive to proactive tips, here’s what Uproar PR’s co-founder and partner Catriona Harris has to say on the matter.

Don’t wait to become news, be the news.

Begin proactively. Talk about what you and your company are doing. Get out into your community and talk about what you offer, about your products and services, and maybe what you’re doing on the inside. Get your business into the press and off your own back, but not because you’ve done something wrong.

According to Catriona, this is also a great way to ensure that there’s a significant amount of “positive sentiment” surrounding your brand, if something does go wrong in the future.

“We’ve got clients who do a lot of community service, and making sure that they’re being recognized for that throughout the community is a key priority, whether that’s coming in the form of a sponsorship or stories. This way if a crisis is thrust upon them, their consumers have heard about the company before but in a positive light. They’ll be more forgiving than if they’ve never heard of them before.”

Take the time to get press that covers your business in the best light possible, or simply to get press. Neutral press is better than no press—at least that way people will have heard of you.

Consider, if you hear that a particular brand has a case of salmonella in their food, you’re much more likely to say “I buy from that company all the time. This is a one-time case and I completely understand. No big deal.”

But, if it’s some unknown brand that you’ve never heard of or seen—maybe a new company or a smaller company—then you might find that this one negative piece of news taints your image of the entire company. All you’re ever going to think about every time you see that brand now is their association with salmonella. Not a good way to start.

For brands and larger companies, hiring a PR agency to build their reputation in the press is an obvious solution. But, what if you can’t afford a PR firm? How should you proactively approach getting this positive press?

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Turn existing customers into brand ambassadors.

Catriona believes that garnering positive press for the things you do and sell is possible on any scale.

“For a small business, social media channels are probably the easiest place to do this. By running very targeted social media campaigns, you can slowly get your audience on board.”

Of course, this alone will not be enough to turn an average customer into an advocate for your company. You also have to make sure to interact with them and to respond when they respond. Be timely and be relevant. Make them feel special.

You might also get involved in your community and in community events. Show people you care about more than just your own success. Show them you care about them and they will be more likely to talk about you in a positive light, and for that matter, just talk about you at all.

Catriona says, “If you’re a small restaurant, let’s say, and you attend community events, and you’re out there talking to people and you build that sense of community, you’re heading in the right direction. This is particularly true if you don’t have the means to go with a larger campaign.”

Whatever the route you choose to take, turning someone into a brand ambassador begins with consistent communication and extra special attention!

If crisis does hit? First, breathe. Second, have people you can turn to.

Let’s say disaster does strike—perhaps a tweet goes wrong, or someone says something that casts you in a negative spotlight and the press picks up on it—if this does happen, rather than reacting immediately, Catriona Harris recommends hitting the pause button.

“Take the time to think about it. You don’t have to jump immediately. Shut your door, then think about it. What is the crisis? How is this going to affect me? Is it going to affect me only internally? Externally? How big is it? How long is it going to affect me for?” And then think about the approach that you need to take.”

Now that you’ve considered the repercussions of this event, the next thing to do is to get in touch with the people who can help you fix or alleviate the problem. This is where your connections and brand ambassadors will come in handy.

Don’t wait for disaster to strike before you think of how to create them. The more you build your network, the more likely you will have people you can turn to for advice and input. And, if you do have a PR firm on your books, speak to them about your crisis plan. It’s better to handle things sooner rather than later.

Publicize yourself proactively, but be sensitive doing it.

Good publicity is all about joining the legitimate conversation of a marketplace.

When it comes to publicity, people sometimes think that jumping in on a trending topic will propel them into the media. While this could happen, it’s not something Catriona recommends.  Rather, she advocates “joining the legitimate conversation of a marketplace.”

“I think people need to remember to be sensitive and think of ways they can actually publicize themselves without having to jump on issues that could get them in trouble.”

Think less about taking advantage of a trend or news item and more about contributing something of value, given that trend.

Remember, everyone in your company is a spokesperson.

When I ask Catriona if a company should have policies regarding how they approach the media or how they represent the company to the public, she is very clear on the matter.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that marketing and sales are the only people in charge of representing your brand.

The existence of social media networks means that every one of your employees with a presence has an impact on your brand.

“When we start with companies, we always ask them to remind their employees that, regardless of their title, they are company representatives. So, if anyone in the media does ever talk to them, they need to remember that they’re a company spokesperson.”

This is why it’s a good idea to have a company policy regarding social media and to make sure that your employees are all familiar with it. Catriona says:

“In social media for sure, I recommend to our clients that they do monitor what their employees are putting out there, because again, I think consumers of information don’t always know the difference between the CEO and the janitor.

Everywhere in between, people are out there, and if they’re commenting, making comments, they have an association online with the company name, then they can be seen as a company spokesperson. They definitely need to be careful with what they say and make sure that they are speaking appropriately.”

Monitor the discussions happening around your brand.

Given how quickly word can spread online, we asked Catriona if she ever has companies that come to her and say “It’s all too much to deal with. I don’t want to take the chance of getting into a situation that could negatively impact my brand.”

Her answer? All the time.

“I tell them they’re on social media whether they’re there participating or not. People are on their own social platforms complaining or praising a brand, even though they may not be doing so directly. So, you might as well be there to respond and to listen to what’s going on in the market so that you can make changes if necessary, be they internal or external.”

Whether or not you choose to be on social media, or even the internet, you still have an online presence. Getting involved in the conversation is partly a way of controlling your own name and your own brand.

If your company is not too big, you can monitor what your employees are saying by creating a Twitter list. If your company is relatively small, this should be manageable.

“Unfortunately, there’s not one single tool we recommend. It really depends on the size of the company and how active employees and clients are on social media. Myself, we only have 30 employees. It’s a scope, but I have a Twitter list where I can just very quickly, with one glance, take a look at what all of our employees are saying.  If you’re a smaller company, maybe even medium sized company, you could probably do that too. It doesn’t matter who handles this, marketing or HR, but obviously as your business scales, you might need to start watching this on a departmental level.”

To make this easier, there are also a couple of tactics Uproar PR recommends clients use, including setting up alerts for keyword mentions on Google Alerts and getting into simple practice of googling your own brand.

Google Alerts and other social listening platforms, like Mention, don’t always catch everything. And, if you’re out there regularly monitoring what your social platforms look like, sometimes you can catch things before they become an issue.

It’s also a good idea to have some sort of a social media policy in place. It’s best to work with your legal department or your HR department on this matter but you can generally run it by your PR firm to see if you’ve missed anything. Catriona recommends all businesses have something like this in place, regardless of size.

Respond to criticism.

Naturally, if you’ve got a presence on social sites and on online directories like Yelp, at some stage, you’re bound to get a bad review.

The question is, how do you respond and for that matter, should you respond? Catriona say

“I recommend to our clients that they respond to every review, good or bad. I feel like consumers who are willing to take the time to go online to complain are also the kind of people who could become your best ambassadors if you handle the situation well and fix the problem. Sometimes all these people are looking for is their voice to be heard, and if you recognize it and comment, I think that goes a long way. Obviously there are people that go online and just complain just to complain, but 9 times out of ten, we’ve found that replying to negative reviews works to really rectify the situation.”

If, however, you are dealing with a spammer, or someone who is just trying to stir up trouble, you can obviously report these people to the various social platforms and request that they be removed or blocked. Or, you can keep doing positive things. People understand when someone is just trying to make trouble.

Simply put, be proactive.

Regardless of what you’re dealing with, a proactive approach is always a good approach. This doesn’t mean rushing into a situation, but it does mean responding in a timely manner and dealing with issues directly.

Many of the companies that have suffered major PR disasters, like credit card security breaches, have actually responded pretty well.

They’ve come out and said “Hey, we’re working on getting our platform upgraded and we’re doing everything in our power to prevent such issues happening in the future. If you’re worried you’ve been affected, we encourage you to change your passwords or cards.”

A simple approach like this is often enough to keep most people calm and to prevent too much of a PR-storm.

You can’t always account for what people will do and as such, so long as you focus on safeguarding your customers, on being positive and on fixing problems, you are much less likely to suffer such a crisis.

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Content Author: Candice Landau

Candice Landau is a marketing consultant with a background in web design and copywriting. She specializes in content strategy, copywriting, website design, and digital marketing for a wide-range of clients including digital marketing agencies and nonprofits.