Why the Best PR Defense is a Good, Solid Offense

So why did Lance Armstrong really sit on Oprah’s couch?

It is human nature to want to respond to negative accusations. Even the most stoic executive often takes such allegations about his or her company personally and there is a desire to take an aggressive approach to responding.

Certainly it is important to correct inaccurate information and keep stakeholders updated as relevant facts become available. This is true whether you are recalling a faulty car or trying to contain a major political scandal.

The organizations and individuals that earn the most respect and credibility are the ones who provide regular updates, even when there isn’t much new material to tell.

Regular contact with key audiences is even more critical in today’s world of the Internet and bloggers, 24/7 news cycles and social-media platforms that allow anyone to share his or her opinion, without fact checkers or press credentials. And the current media environment often makes companies even more anxious to respond. It doesn’t matter to them that the Facebook post was from someone with only 17 Facebook friends. It was wrong and they want to correct it.

Responding to comments from people outside of a company’s group of key stakeholders that are unlikely to have been seen by those stakeholders is seldom the best use of time and resources. And responding, even to high authority, credible voices, is only half the battle.

Playing strictly defense is only half the game and will not fully win the hearts and minds of consumers and shareholders. Companies should be formulating a proactive play while keeping the opposition at bay.

It is that positive campaign that will give people something else to talk about, and provide another context each time they see the company name in a story or a tweet.

For companies that take the “no comment” route in a crisis, the proactive play also gives them something to do besides bury their head in the sand and wait for things to die down.

Granted, it can sometimes be difficult to tell a positive story in the midst of a scandal. Credibility is low and kicking off a new program may be viewed as damage control and not a sincere desire to do good.

Even when an individual or a corporation has been building a positive story for years, it may not be enough. Again, think Lance Armstrong. He launched the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 1997 and the wildly popular Livestrong campaign in 2004. The foundation has raised more than $500 million to support cancer survivors and has served 2.5 million people affected by cancer. The organization does a great job promoting the work that it does and the people it helps. Since Armstrong continued to be connected to the charity that he founded, the good that the foundation does reflected positively on the athlete. Or it used to.

After the now-infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey in which Armstrong admitted to years of using banned substances—despite denying those accusations for years—he has removed himself from the goodwill that the charity provided to his personal reputation.

And while there are cancer survivors and Armstrong supporters who encourage people to remember the good he has done for those stricken with cancer, for most people it is hard to overlook—and at this point forgive—more than a decade of lies.

So what elements are necessary for a credible story that will change the conversation?

• It must resonate with the target audience. If a company’s key target is Justin Beiber fans, telling a story about how your organization supports symphony programs across the country may not be helpful.

• It must be believable and tangible. Just to say, “we are doing good,” garners a lot of skepticism. Organizations need to provide metrics of some kind that can illustrate that claim.

• It must be interesting enough to be passed on. To get a story to really stick, it needs to be sharable. The story needs to be something that people will talk to each other about, and originate not just from your company but also from other sources.

One example of an organization taking this approach is Susan G. Komen for the Cure. After coming under harsh criticism from key audiences for deciding to halt funding for Planned Parenthood (a decision that was later reversed), the organization has been telling stories via its “Voices of Impact” campaign about the women and men who have been helped by its services.

While the charity still has ground to make up—with most chapters reporting that donations for 2012 were well below their goals—it is at least a step in the right direction. PRN


Melissa Arnoff is senior VP at Levick Communications. She can be reached at marnoff@levick.com.