It could happen to you – maybe it already has. A disgruntled employee, an angry customer or an underhanded competitor could try to burn you by spreading rumors, lies or misinformation about your business. “Bad news travels faster than good news,” says Mike Emoff, CEO of Shumsky (asi/326300). “I kind of wish I could market good news like bad news, but you can’t.”
How you handle a wave, or possibly worse yet, a slow trickle of bad PR will determine the future success of your company. Responding well can limit the damage, but protecting your reputation should start long before a crisis is upon you. Here’s a list of suggestions to help you safeguard your name, image and business credibility.
Set Up Monitoring Tools
Nowadays, protecting your reputation means staying ahead of the news, experts insist. MSNBC’s Mike Michalowicz, author of Profit First, believes Google Alerts gives you a good watchdog to do just that.
“It will notify you when certain keywords are said in any kind of media outlet or Web link. You put your company’s name and your key personnel in there, and if anything is said about them, you immediately get notified via email,” he says.
Emoff, also a Google Alerts proponent, has used the tool to keep ahead of potential drama. Why? The last thing Emoff wants is for one bit of bad press to be picked up later by a wire service or an industry blog, giving legs to something that might not even be true.
“Something bad can happen now and be posted in three hours,” he says. “I want to know about it before then so we can send PR out to our industry magazines to circumvent – or at least preempt – any major issue. If it’s set up right, Google Alerts works for our industry and our size because it’s free.”
To further keep tabs on company mentions, Michalowicz suggests taking advantage of a social media app called Hootsuite, which can be used for Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Limit Social Media Platforms
It’s possible, according to Michalowicz, that many small businesses are unaware of negative press simply because they’re being stretched too thin. “The problem is when bad PR breaks out, you want to have a presence, but the more presence you have, the more difficult it is to stay on top of it,” he says.
When someone complains about an order on Twitter, for example, and the response is slow or not what the customer wants to hear, problems begin. So Michalowicz asks then: Why be on Twitter? “Most people are hurting themselves because they open up a presence everywhere, and then they kind of abandon it and they get slammed there. If you aren’t actively using it, you shouldn’t have a presence at all,” Michalowicz says.
Instead, Michalowicz advises business owners to strategically reduce the number of platforms they’re playing in – starting with the site that’s providing the least positive exposure. In other words, if Google Plus doesn’t get much traffic for you, consider getting rid of it.
“If you feel obligated to keep them open, redirect them to your primary presence,” Michalowicz says. “So, on your Google page, you can have a post saying, ‘We’re currently not monitoring our Google site. Please interact with us here.’ Have them go to your Twitter page or your Facebook page.”
Pause Before Responding
Michalowicz recognizes that when something negative or flat-out untrue is said about you or your company, the knee-jerk reaction is to respond as quickly as possible. He thinks this is typically a mistake.
“Basically, there are two types of bad PR. One is bad PR that goes flat and dies out very quickly, and then there’s bad PR that explodes,” he says. “If in doubt, no response is usually the best response initially.”
A good way to decide whether to respond to a slanderous attack, according to Michalowicz, is to ask yourself two questions: How influential is the person sharing this? And, what’s the severity of it?
“If someone in my company is having an affair with the First Lady, I don’t care if it’s said by a non-influencer – the severity is so significant that it’s going to go big fast. Conversely, if Oprah says my company’s nuts because we answer the phone on two rings and not one, the severity may be nothing, but the influencer is big, and that’s going to go big fast,” Michalowicz says.
If bad press comes from a non-influencer and it’s non-severe, the best reaction is no reaction. In the rarer alternative cases, Michalowicz reacts swiftly. “We’ll then engage a strategic PR firm because this can be very damaging to my company,” he says.
Carefully Handle Upset Staffers
Michalowicz believes business owners should do all they can up front to keep employees from making slanderous comments later. If a staffer agrees to a contract, part of that deal should include language that deters derogatory statements. Of course, there’s no guarantee an added clause will prevent an attack by an angry employee. Here’s where tact is critical.
“Always speak to your attorney first, because even if it’s a past employee, there are heavy HR consequences,” Michalowicz says. “In cases where it’s an employee where there has been an exchange of money, you want to speak with a lawyer, see what the appropriate response is and protect yourself legally from any further consequences.”
Again, the rule of thumb is to hold off on a rapid response, Michalowicz insists. Remember, ex-employees often post potentially damaging information or unkind comments simply because they want to pick a fight. It’s in your best interest to not take the bait because the ex-staffer will generally become the cheered-on underdog in the court of public opinion. “If the small guy hits the big guy and the big guy hits back, the big guy is the jerk,” Michalowicz says.
Invest in Product Safety
Another proactive approach industry firms can take to avoid negative PR is to be aware of product safety trends. Suppliers should be on notice, for example, about recent recalls of power banks and should be upping testing, both overseas and domestically. Distributors should be suggesting customers purchase better quality items, instead of cheaper options that bring higher risk. Companies can also consider joining groups like the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), which encourages a commitment to safe and compliant merchandise.
“We chose early on to be part of the distributor advocacy group within QCA, because we feel the more we know and are in tune with product safety within our industry, the better we can prepare ahead of time not to have a catastrophe,” Emoff says. “We do that with product safety, we do that with our hiring processes – we do that with pretty much everything now.”
While there are costs involved in taking all of these preventive steps, Emoff believes they’re preferable to dealing with an eventual safety concern that could cause serious PR damage to your business.
“A small company may look at the risk of this as different versus the cost of remedying it ahead of time, and they say, ‘I’ll wait until I have a breach,’ and that’s a huge mistake. That will put a small company out of business,” Emoff says.