Just Say It: Countering Negative Media Coverage, Part II

Responding to a negative story is always a challenge. A recent post from Arthur Solomon in PRNEWS reviewed a variety of approaches, including eliciting op-eds or public statements from third parties. Such tactics can work and provide external support for your position.

On the other hand, they are slow and contingent on media willingness. Same thing for corrections. When conceded, if ever, they are generally late, cryptic and ineffective.

Instead, reacting in a few hours, before the negative story gets repeated, can make the difference between success and failure. Consider a fast-response approach based on a very simple principle: if you have something to say...say it.

As communicators, you have tools to engage media when a direct approach is warranted. In practical terms this means writing a detailed clarification or rebuttal and posting it on your site. No need to wait for third parties or negotiate with media. This approach puts you in control of the message–initially, at least–as well as its scope, mode of dissemination and timing.

The message and disseminating it

There’s no need to be confrontational in your response. Depending on the context, concede what in the story is accurate, but politely add caveats and elements of context.  You can also resort to robust language when necessary.

Once you've written the response, simply post it. In most cases you will also want to send a link to the author of the offending story and other reporters. This will help influence follow-up coverage.

In addition, you can push your post to clients, employees, partners and, if needed, deploy it on social media. Once you do that count the clicks (performance is measurable).

In extreme cases, you have the nuclear option: issue a press release. No two situations are identical, and you have plenty of methods for calibrating the impact you want to achieve.

Moving Fast

A direct response can be implemented in hours, even minutes. In many cases, you knew a negative story was on the way. Draft response in advance. Being quick can make a difference, because other media are made aware of your version before they start repeating and distort the story. They also take notice that you are not afraid of striking back.

There is an old saying that you don't argue with people who buy ink by the barrel. The point is formerly the media had the last word. Not anymore. Today, anyone can have the last word.

The fast-response approach induces caution and respect from media. It's all a matter of adopting the right tone and manner, depending on the circumstances.

A well-crafted, timely response sends a strong message to customers, suppliers, partners, shareholders and, above all, employees and board members, who sometimes wonder why the organization fails to react forcefully.

Indeed, one of the main obstacles of the quick-response approach is fear of reprisal. It's tempting to cave in, out of fear of worsening the situation, especially when legal is around the table. But times have changed.

PR pros have a responsibility as stewards of a company’s key asset—its reputation—to set the record straight. The web provides us with tools that make old sayings...well...old.

Michel Lemay is a PR pro and author

[Editor's Note: The views presented above and below do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]

Arthur Solomon Responds

It's nice to know the article prompted a response, though I disagree with much of it.

For years, a prompt reply in response to negative coverage or a PR crisis was encouraged. But not all PR pros agree with that tactic.

A caveat: All PR situations, including crises, need original thinking. Unlike clothing, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

That said, consider me on the side of those advising a more measured response. I'm a believer in a just the facts, ma'am approach. Do not issue a statement until enough facts are clear. True, this often means waiting a day or so. On the other hand, a measured response can protect against having to walk back incorrect information that emerges later.

In addition, Mr. Lemay writes above that a company's prompt reply ensures it will have the last word. He argues a quick response puts your company in control of the message. Not necessarily.

A too-fast reply can lead to additional negative coverage when new information about a situation is uncovered. The examples of Boeing, Wells Fargo, Meta and Volkswagen offer ample evidence.

The Truth

More important, a prompt response doesn't mean what a company says is accepted as truth. Again, check the history of press coverage of companies mentioned above.

Posting a reply quickly on a company website or issuing a press release might make the company feel good, but it does little to change a situation long-term. Ultimately, the facts of a situation matter more.

As a reporter I received hundreds of press releases. As a PR pro, I wrote hundreds. None were accepted as anything more than what they were–PR tools. When I visited former news colleagues at their offices, their waste paper baskets were overflowing with press releases. The same was true with expensive, glossy press kits.

A fast website response to negative coverage does little to resolve a situation because eventually the truth will emerge. Better to advise the company to tell the truth immediately, rather than letting an issue become a running, drip-by-drip series of negative stories, as is often the result of a too-fast reply.