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Handling bad publicity

How to cope when bad news breaks

Even the best run, most successful small business can bear the brunt of bad publicity. It only takes one disgruntled customer to go to a newspaper; one aggrieved employee to post something on the internet; or one unforeseen disaster to occur and suddenly your business's reputation is endangered.

The key to handling such a crisis effectively is to put plans in place before it actually happens.

Be Prepared

You can minimise the impact of negative publicity by crisis planning: identifying things that could go wrong and then working out how best to counter them.

"We deal with a whole range of problems and crises for our clients," says Steve Osborne-Brown, managing director at public relations consultancy Hallmark PR. "Although they are all different, proper planning and good procedures reduce the negative effects every time."

Think about what might trigger any bad publicity for your business. Consider things specific to your sector or industry as well as your particular business. List examples of companies similar to yours that have received bad publicity or areas of weakness within your business. It will help to be aware of which media might be interested in your business.

Review how these potential crises might affect your business as well as your staff, suppliers and customers. Then consider all the possible media that might report on your business and assess the damage each could cause. List details, keeping this information secure.

Establish clear lines of communication with employees, key customers and suppliers and the media. The last of these involves appointing a company spokesperson. It's a good idea for the spokesperson to establish a good relationship with local and trade journalists before any crisis occurs.

Create a Crisis Plan listing contact information for media, suppliers and customers, details of your elected company spokesperson and the procedure to be followed should any bad publicity crop up.

There's more good advice on handling crisis from a PR agency, here and a good fictitious workthrough example here.

What To Do When A Crisis Occurs

Stay calm and communicate. Inform staff, customers and suppliers of problems where possible, rather than let them discover the news in the media.

Provide a short statement. If journalists call, your spokesperson should never say 'no comment'. This will make your business appear at fault even if it is not. If more time is needed to consider a response, suggest when the spokesperson will call back or send an extended statement. Keep to this and try to answer questions as honestly and briefly as possible. If you're not comfortable with the press (and many people aren't), consider some media training

Put a positive spin on a crisis to neutralise its effect. You might be able to help people being made redundant to find new local work or could be closing a factory but moving the business online to serve the online global market

Be proactive rather than reactive when you have foreseen potential bad publicity, such as job losses. Stress the positive. Even if you can't control the media, you can do your best to influence it

Follow up with positive actions, changes and news. After a crisis, emphasising positive stories, such as improved practices and community involvement, will help to restore your reputation in the longer term. For example, Scottish Power received a lot of bad publicity after some of their customers were left without power for up to six days. However, they turned it around completely by investing in a �20m community-based tree-clearing initiative, working with local communities to fell trees in preparation for forecasted storms. That year the power loss and damage was minimalised and their customers were happy and the company went on to win The Business In The Community Company of The Year Award in 2002-3.

You can turn bad publicity round by listening to customers, assessing where improvements can be made, and by finding creative solutions to turn the negative into a positive perception of your company. Think proactively, prepare and communicate and you'll ride out the storm.

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