August 3, 2021
‘Kill the Story’ Is Bad PR Strategy. Here’s How to Respond Instead.
When your organization is in the midst of some bad press or a scandal, your CEO might reflexively respond by circling the wagons and asking you to kill the story. That’s understandable. No one wants bad press to mar their public image and draw attention away from the otherwise excellent services their firm provides.
But if a reporter uncovers something newsworthy about your organization, or if an offensive interaction is filmed on a cell phone and goes viral, it will be quite difficult — if not impossible — to kill or even muffle that story. News travels fast, especially when it’s salacious.
Reporters might seem like the enemy when you’re battling a PR nightmare, but they fulfill a critical function in keeping the public informed and speaking truth to power. It’s their job to hold you accountable — and we believe outside accountability is broadly a good thing, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the throes of a crisis. This stance might sound atypical for a PR firm, but we look at challenging, special PR situations as an opportunity for your firm to strengthen your position as an industry leader.
Facing the storm head on is the only way to ensure your organization emerges stronger — or at least, smarter — than you were before. Here’s how to respond effectively to a PR crisis so you can get to work regaining the trust and confidence of your stakeholders, employees, and the general public.
How Honesty and Transparency can Influence the PR Narrative
If you know there’s trouble brewing internally, it can be incredibly tempting to try to bury the story. After all, no one knows about the situation yet. Or your leadership team may hope the problem will go away on its own, allowing you to avoid negative press. That’s human nature, but it’s simply not going to work.
Trying to bury a story or hoping it will peter out aren’t great strategies because the truth almost always comes out. And when it does, your company will be much worse off if there’s evidence you tried to hide the story — or failed to reveal something time sensitive or illegal. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll put aside situations that can still be internally remedied, without PR techniques, and discussion situations where a problem is real and about to blow.
Let’s look at an example straight from the headlines. In 2017, consumer reporting giant Equifax became aware of a data breach that affected 143 million Americans. Social security numbers, birth dates, and addresses were among the data points stolen in this grand-scale cyberattack.
That in of itself is bad news. But what made it even worse? Equifax concealed the breach for an incredible six weeks — robbing their customers’ ability to take time-sensitive steps to protect themselves from identity theft.
We don’t know exactly what happened internally when Equifax first learned of this breach. But we do know they should have assembled a team, quickly gotten up to speed on all salient details, and communicated transparently and honestly about the breach to all customers affected. Yes, the story would have broken sooner. However, the narrative would have been drastically different had Equifax been open and honest about what transpired, outlined concrete steps they planned to take to protect the millions of Americans affected, and introduced new security measures to reduce the risk of that kind of breach happening again.
Replace a Generic PR Statement with an Authentic Apology
Have you ever had someone apologize to you by saying “I’m sorry you feel that way?” That kind of apology makes it clear the person issuing the supposed apology actually thinks the offended party might be the problem.
Generic PR statements often operate in the same way. When you avoid taking responsibility or fail to own your company’s mistake, you risk alienating your customers or stakeholders even more. If you’ve misstepped in some way, first take time to listen to what those affected are trying to tell you. Then, issue an authentic apology. Don’t hide behind a bland PR statement or a problematic corporate policy.
You probably remember the viral video of a passenger being dragged from an overbooked United flight. The passenger had a ticket and was there lawfully, but United was overbooked and asked the passenger and his family to give up their seats for United employees who needed to fly. The passenger refused, and he was forcefully dragged from the flight while nearby passengers protested (and filmed the whole thing) in horror.
United’s initial statement on Twitter was tone deaf at best: “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers [to give up their seats], one customer refused to leave. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”
This response takes zero responsibility for a policy that led to chronic overbooking. But even worse, United didn’t apologize for the violent altercation or acknowledge its cruel enforcement of a bad policy.
United issued a number of subsequent statements, each one becoming progressively more apologetic. But once you respond without any hint of remorse, people won’t believe you’re sincere when you try to walk that back. It’s crucial to get it right the first time, even if that means buying time by saying you need to look at the situation before responding. But don’t wait too long, or your silence could be taken as avoiding the issue, or worse, ignoring it altogether.
Make Meaningful Amends to People or Groups You’ve Harmed
Your response to a bad story should obviously vary based on its severity, how many people are impacted, and whether the problem is evidence of a systemic issue. If it’s a one-time, self-contained mistake, a simple apology may be all that’s warranted. But if your company is responsible for a larger-scale issue — or if a group of people have been harmed by bad players in your organization — you’ll need to offer meaningful amends.
As a communications professional, your job is to convey the details of the plan to the media, your stakeholders, and the public. But the communication itself is not the plan. Therefore, be sure to bring key players into the room to determine an appropriate course of action. Delve into the problem, ask thoughtful questions, address the full scope of the challenge, and make sure that behind the message is real substance.
Just as your response will vary based on the details of what happened, so should the actions your organization takes. Perhaps you discover a hidden culture of harassment that has affected a large number of women or people from marginalized groups. In that situation, making amends might mean overhauling your HR department, dismissing guilty parties, and bringing in coaches or therapists to work with those harmed. A single apologetic press release, no matter how well crafted and sincere, certainly isn’t going to cut it.
In Equifax’s scenario, making meaningful amends involved offering protection and compensation to customers, while also taking decisive steps to shore up cybersecurity. Had they done this from the get-go, without sitting on the story for six weeks, they would have at least mitigated the damage to their company’s reputation.
Likewise, had United accepted full responsibility for their abysmal treatment of a passenger, apologized, and asked that passenger how they could make amends, it would have gone a long way to diffuse the public outcry. Instead, their initially indifferent response fanned the flames of social media outrage.
One last thought here: when communicating the steps you plan to take, it’s crucial to strike the right tone. You’re righting wrongs. Don’t try to sound like a hero for doing the right thing. Instead, show contrition and communicate the action you plan to take.
After the PR Storm Take Stock Internally
Bad press will fade away eventually. But if you want an unfortunate chapter to stay behind you, put internal accountability measures in place to make sure you’ve done everything you’ve promised.
PR professionals might not be responsible for writing and enforcing policy, but you are the one to communicate your organization’s message to stakeholders and the public. Therefore, you have a vested interest in making sure your organization follows through. Invite stakeholders, employees, and even the general public to hold you accountable, too. Approach the situation honestly, own your mistake, and make good on your promises.
By doing so, you’ll not only guide your organization through the storm, but potentially become smarter and stronger because of it.