By Jen Thames
The world is moving faster than ever. Everything is online.
Smartphones make it possible to record every seemingly private moment. And news travels as fast a tweet.
The odds of bad behavior going unnoticed are slimmer than ever.
You’ve seen seen those press conferences where a politician or professional athlete delivers a statement after being caught doing something embarrassing. You’ve watched brands go down in flames on social media over something an employee posted. And you felt relieved that you weren’t in that position.
But whether you represent a company worth billions of dollars, or just yourself, there’s always a chance something could happen to damage your reputation. Here’s how to deal with it when it does.
1. Plan Before You Speak
The moment something humiliating or negative happens to you (or your company or your brand—sometimes all three at once) address it publicly. Your first instinct may be to write and distribute a press release, or shoot off a tweet or a status update on social media.
All three are fine. But you also must be willing to face reporters, bloggers and others who have questions.
One of the best books that guides business owners and others in bad-news situations is Winning with the News Media: a Self-Defense Manual When You’re the Story by Clarence Jones. It covers print and broadcast publicity in addition to new media and offers step-by-step recommendations on how to respond.
2. Control the Story
When a scandal or humiliating incident happens, the people telling the story have the power to control it.
If others are telling your story, you have no control. Just look what happened with Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. She addressed the issued in just one tweet, thus fueling a media frenzy that centered on speculation and a lot of unanswered questions. She eventually held a press conference but not until a week later.
Take control of your story as soon as you can.
Let’s say a pilot falls asleep in the cockpit and loses control of his plane. Just in the nick of time, he wakes up. He regains control and makes a water landing, with no injuries or casualties.
That story could play one of two ways. The first is that the pilot put everyone on the plane in danger and almost killed them. The second is that the pilot’s quick thinking and reflexes saved everyone that day. Both are technically true but only one makes the pilot look good.
3. Take Responsibility
The worst thing you can do when going through a public crisis is fail to take responsibility for your actions. Blaming others for things that happened on your watch is the quickest way to make your audience turn on you.
When Amazon customers found that their copies of George Orwell’s 1984 were deleted from their Kindle devices without notice or warning, CEO Jeff Bezos posted a message in the Kindle forums with an apology:
“This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.
With deep apology to our customers,
Founder & CEO
But what about something your company didn’t do? Maybe it was something an employee did. In that case, you might not necessarily be apologizing for the problem, but for not catching it sooner or preventing it altogether.
Or perhaps you’re taking responsibility for not vetting staff properly.
4. Move On
When all is said and done, remember that the more you talk about the incident, the more others will too.
After you’ve taken responsibility, it’s time to take a step back from the situation. Don’t respond to every new seed of the story. Get back to work. If you’re an actor, go make another movie. If your company makes dog toys, it’s time for another product launch.
A great example of this is Domino’s. In 2009, it was hit with a flood of bad PR after two employees filmed themselves violating public health laws by sticking cheese up a nose and blowing mucous on a sandwich. The video went viral, and Domino’s found itself unwillingly rebranded as the pizza company that does nasty things to your food.
But instead of closing up shop and slinking into the shadows, Domino’s rebranded, changed its recipes, and launched a new ordering tracker that connected customers with the workers actually preparing and delivering the food.
Positive news like that can push the bad publicity further behind you.