The elation you experience when opening a publication and finding column inches of coverage can rapidly turn to despair when you discover that your client is the target of bad press. Far from being featured in flattering terms, you find that they are, in fact, the subject of criticism. This negative PR can take many forms, including direct complaints levelled at your client’s activities, products or services, or unfavourable comparisons that diminish what they have to offer against that of a competitor.
When this happens, your client is likely to be extremely angry. In their minds they have been traduced in front of a wide audience. Many organisations, particularly smaller ones, still don’t understand what PR is and think that public relations professionals are actually responsible for publishing pieces. At the very least, they believe that the agency holds control over what appears. Ultimately their opinion will be that you have done worse than fail. Failure in their eyes is not generating coverage. You have gone one step further and produced negative coverage.
So what should you do when this situation occurs? Here are eight pointers on how you should respond to a publication when a negative story appears about your client:
1- Don’t act in haste: The golden rule is ‘don’t panic.’ The article has appeared in print and isn’t going anywhere. It is already in the public domain and nothing you do will retract it. Jumping on the phone and sounding off to journalists without a considered response may cause more damage in the long run by affecting your future relationship with them. Obviously, online versions can be amended, but you still need to make sure you have your facts straight first.
2- Assess the piece objectively: Firstly, reassess the article. Is it genuinely negative? You might be too firmly entrenched with your client to be able to step back and look at it objectively. Run it by a third party to gauge their opinion. It may be that you are overreacting to the piece by interpreting subtle nuances incorrectly.
3- Does the journalist have a point?: After reassessing the article, ask yourself if the journalist is actually being reasonable. Perhaps they do have a legitimate point, however unpalatable that may be for your client. You may still need to approach the journalist about it, but acknowledging that they are right when you contact them may give you a more sympathetic hearing.
4- Talk to the journalist: The next step is to talk to the journalist who authored the piece. How you engage with them will depend on your relationship. If it is good, point out your concerns and say that your client would like the opportunity to reply in print. If it is bad…
5- ….go to the editor: If this is just the latest in a series of issues with the journalist, it might be worth speaking to the publication’s editor about your concerns. It may not feel nice going over someone’s head, but this may be your only recourse if you feel that the journalist in question is being unreasonable.
6- Offer an exclusive: In addition to requesting a right of reply from the journalist or editor, you could also offer them an exclusive on some other aspect of your client’s operations. Talk to your client and see if they might be prepared to extend their budget to cover a meal at a nice restaurant for the journalist. This informal meeting can be the background to a new article and the basis of a more positive relationship moving forwards.
7- Don’t cut off access: As a result of receiving negative PR, your client may demand that the publication in question has no further invitations to their events, access to their activities or receives any more of their press releases. You will need to manage this carefully by explaining to the client that such a policy can backfire. Journalists will always find a source for their reporting. Denying them direct access simply means that they are not given the chance to receive positive PR from your client in person.
8- Accept the situation: The vast majority of journalists and editors take pride in their integrity and may well want to stand by what they have written. In this instance, you are just going to have to accept the situation and deal with any fall-out from the client. This may not be the dire consequence you anticipate – a personal experience illustrates this. It occurred when a client sent the media a press release relating to a sports star who had endorsed their services. The image of the star they chose to send had clearly been digitally altered, resulting in it appearing in a publication the next day as the subject of editorial ridicule. After initially being angry and demanding an apology from the media outlet in question (via the PR agency of course), the client finally accepted that they had been wrong and agreed to be more careful in the future.