Like other journalists, I’ve occasionally written stories that drew the wrath of PR professionals. Perhaps the article cast a company in a negative light, or included positive mentions of competitors while omitting a client. Some PR pros handle these situations better than others. Their actions might not undo the damage—from my perspective, the damage is usually deserved. But they may help mitigate the damage, or at least set the stage for a better working relationship.
I should say at the outset that the worst responses often come from folks who are not full-time PR professionals. Instead, they’re in-house marketing people for whom PR is just part of the job description. So it’s not always a matter of media relations, but client education.
That said, here are some do’s and don’ts from my own experience:
- Stick to the facts. When I’ve written negative stories about companies or products, the initial complaint would often allege that the piece wasn’t accurate. But then, when I’d ask the PR rep to specify the inaccuracies, they would back off and say, “Well, I didn’t like the tone.” Most editors are happy to run corrections if you point out factual inaccuracies. It’s also appropriate to point out relevant facts that weren’t mentioned in the story. But if all you can argue is that the tone was too negative, without the facts to back it up, you don’t have a strong case.
- Show some grace. I’ll never forget the time I wrote a story about an unusual flaw in an expensive piece of graphics equipment. The machines malfunctioned when the humidity was too low, forcing customers in California to build humidified tents around them (talk about a photo op). After the story appeared, I got a call from the manufacturer’s head of PR. “You know, Steve, I wish you hadn’t written that article. My bosses yelled at me because of that article. But I can’t complain, because it was accurate.” He instantly earned my respect. Later, he went into solo practice, and no matter how busy I was, I would always read his emails and take his calls.
- Vet your references. Another story I’ll never forget was about a distributor of big-ticket office equipment whose customers had a litany of complaints about its business practices. After collecting their horror stories, I called the company’s head of marketing to get a response. He offered the names of a few supposedly happy customers to give the story some balance. I called the first name on the list, who lit up in anger as soon as I mentioned the company’s name. He said they had misled him in a business deal, giving me one more tale of woe to include. It seems the marketing chief got the names from a sales rep and never bothered to vet them. (I’m glad he didn’t, because it made for a better story.)
- Don’t play the advertising card. Canceling advertising because you don’t like a story is stupid. Editors, and even some publishers, take it as a badge of honor. It makes you or your client look petty. And often, the advertiser eventually returns. Why? Outlets that put their readers’ interests above all else are the ones with the most loyal audiences. Those are the readers that advertisers want to reach.
- Avoid the “good cop-bad cop” technique. I’ve seen this occasionally in smaller companies where the PR and marketing are handled in-house. The head of marketing is Mr. or Ms. Friendly, all hugs and backslaps and “How ya doin’?” when they come in for meetings. Below this person is the attack dog who strikes when the company doesn’t like a story. It might seem effective in theory, but it’s transparent, and the bad cop may get a reputation as a crank who can’t be taken seriously.
- Keep the lines of communication open. I once worked in a market with two major players that we’ll call Company A and Company B. Company B arguably had the better product, but was known to retaliate against negative coverage by withholding review copies. As for Company A, a negative story sometimes led to a lunch invitation—and even acknowledgements of mistakes made. Guess which company got better press.
P.S. Use media monitoring and analysis to track your company’s cumulative media coverage. This will allow you to easily identify and respond to negative coverage to improve your media relations strategy.
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