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Years ago, I got to know a prominent southern politician very well while covering him as a reporter for a daily newspaper. He was long-serving, established and powerful. He had served in his post for decades and rarely faced any viable opposition during re-elections as the shared sentiment of most was that he'd relinquish his position upon his death or with an outrageous scandal.

One election year, the opposing party propped up a young, gullible, but eager candidate to try to unseat him. It went as expected - a pure bloodbath. At one point on the campaign trail, my curiosity got the best of me and asked the statesman why he was using the full weight of his war chest, a torch and burn strategy and an enormous amount of effort to eviscerate this unknown candidate who had no visible chance of winning. He paused, looked me in my eyes, and said,

"To send a message, you sometimes have to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer."

Every now and then I see business owners, public figures, or even celebrities whose standard response to any negative buzz, chatter or feedback - no matter how small - seems to be that same sledgehammer approach.

But in PR, the results are often disastrous.

Heavy-handed responses to what should be a run-of-the-mill exchange of information on social media websites and even in the comment section of a business webpage have no place in a public relations strategy or in smart brand management.

Every situation is an opportunity to not only show smart branding strategy but to promote goodwill, gain new fans or clients and even educate those watching from the sidelines.

You never, ever want to become the ultimate online or public jerk and win the battle of words, but ultimately lose the war on your brand. Your brand isn't what you think and say about yourself, it is what others think and say about you.

Here are 5 Rules to Live By On Responding to the Negative PR:

  1. Don't overreact - Keep your response sensible and metered. Yes, it's very hard to be a cool cucumber when you feel you or your business and reputation are being attacked. But jumping to the quick and being equally explosive or downright nasty is like adding the proverbial fuel to the raging fire. Stay calm. Often, negative publicity gets minor attention until you respond and give your detractors a platform and provide them with credibility with your response. When in doubt, seek the advice of an outside party who can be more impartial with their take on the matter - preferably a qualified PR practitioner or branding expert.

  2. Prepare your strategy in advance - The best time to figure out how you will handle negative PR is BEFORE you have to handle negative PR. Have a solid plan in place on various scenarios you may face and follow the plan when it is needed. Some basic steps may include immediately correcting erroneous information and be kind with your tone. Always be prepared to apologize for complaints of poor service or quality and offer the opportunity for follow up via an e-mail address or phone number. Yes, their perception is reality even if you disagree. Turn it around if possible.

  3. Use "news rules" to your benefit - If the negativity was presented through a television station, newspaper, radio or even some blogs, nicely ask for equal time to present an alternate version of the story. When you leave out a voice of positive response, people will ultimately fill that void with their own version. But this is important - STAY POSITIVE. Tell your side, be professional, seek to educate and provide other sources if needed.

  4. Allow your "fan club" to fight your public battle -Sometimes, it's important that you keep your fingers and toes out of a conversation if it will work against you and make you or your company appear petty, thin-skinned or unable to take criticism. Trusted customers, business partners and others who believe in you are great resources when you shouldn't respond, but your reputation needs protecting. Allow them to flood the space with positive feedback on your outstanding service, product or long-term, and good standing.

  5. If you or your company are in the wrong, admit it - quickly! - This is often one of the most difficult lessons for companies, individuals, public figures and organizations to learn. When you are in the wrong and have failed to provide what your brand has promised, such as an outstanding performance, quality services or products, or have somehow harmed your customers, don't become a party to "paralysis by analysis." That means you are so busy trying to analyze a situation that you fail to actually do anything to actually fix it. As soon as you arrive at the realization that something went wrong, take responsibility for it publicly and sincerely and the do all you can to make it better.

There is no place for ostriches when the situation calls for eagles.

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