Negative information in media and social networks has long ago ceased to be an ‘occasional catastrophe’ and turned into a variance of the norm for most companies today. No business runs smoothly and mistake-free 100% of the time. It is another matter though, how visible those mistakes are or how soon they will become visible. In reality, every misstep a company makes is public from the get-go because the employees always see it. What happens next and whether negative mentions of the company will find their way to social media depends on those employees’ loyalty and their motivation to make this information public.
When thinking about crisis communications, we often picture a storm of negative comments and media mentions, heated social media posts from opinion leaders and the heightened interest of news reporters towards the company in question. However, in times when 65% of people around the world regularly use online search and social media to get information and follow the news (Edelman Trust Barometer 2018) and the audience of some influencers exceeds that of some media, the time has come to revisit the way we view and resolve reputation crises.
Below are the answers to five popular questions about managing reputation of a company that came under negative public scrutiny.
QUESTION #1. When is it appropriate to react to negative comments and mentions of the company?
Reacting to negative information about your business in the public domain is always the right choice – given that you have correctly defined the scope and the audience of such reaction. When planning our public response in such a case, consider how widely the information spread and which company stakeholders it reached. It is those stakeholders you should be concerned about informing by whatever means necessary, be it phone calls, meetings, emails, interviews, or social media posts. The key purpose here is to assess the potential risks associated with negative mentions of the company in terms of finances, employer brand, as well as important partnerships and transactions.
QUESTION #2. How is it possible to delete negative mentions from public sources?
It is not so much the negative mentions a company should be concerned with, but rather those that remain unaddressed. Hence, a correction to the question posed — there is no need to try and delete negative information, but there is a need to publicize your company’s statement on the matter in question in such a way that it appears high up in Google search. Ideally, any company that is not a start-up or a new business should have at least 2-3 years of public communications history — prior to the emerging need to save its reputation. On average, replacing public negative information about the company with positive costs 50-200% more in time and money than gradual and systemic external and internal communications. Considering you have enough positive content generated about your company to replace the negative one. Therefore, it is always cheaper and more beneficial to regularly talk about what a company does using PR tools than to try and frantically create content ‘out of thin air’ when a reputational disaster strikes.
QUESTION #3. What ways are there to defend a business from a smear campaign?
Reputational risk was ranked #3 among all business risks by Allianz Risk Barometer in 2018, with cybersecurity risks and business interruption ranking #1 and #2, respectively.
This is why protecting reputation is an important priority for top-management — as important as protecting commercial information, clients’ data, and other internal business-critical systems. As well as it is important to cultivate corporate reputation well in advance. A company known for its quality products and services and client-oriented personnel will be less prone to reputational damage than a company that operates otherwise.
You have a good chance of finding your company a target of a smear campaign if the same negative messages quickly and simultaneously appear in numerous public resources.
If that is your case, the next three steps are critical:
Establish how true the negative information is and to what extent (denying, admitting, and telling your story are three different reaction strategies).
Prepare public statements and messages on matters in question.
Explain the situation to employees and train them to communicate on crisis-related matters to stakeholders they routinely interact with.
Further, it is important to monitor how quickly and widely the negative mentions spread to decide on the scale of public reaction — mass or targeted. In case you decide to issue a public statement for mass release, company speakers should publish it in their social media newsfeeds (if your company has a presence there) or communicate via a respected media platform. Don’t forget to ensure your company speakers are available to answer questions about the crisis.
The odds of a company’s fending off a smear campaign primarily depends on two factors: its reputation prior to the attack and the effectiveness of its PR-function and public speakers.
QUESTION #4. Who should be speaking on company’s behalf in response to negative comments?
Be it a business founder, CEO, a respected professional, or a functional director, the key to success is the level of trust in this speaker. Since social media gained a significant share of users around the world, the public communication formats of companies have been steadily shifting from de-personified to personified. To put it simply, most company stakeholders are interested in dialogue with a specific company representative with a face, a name, and a public profile. For most businesses, this means an entirely new direction of PR-activity — cultivating influencers of their own. Today, predominantly large companies in the developing markets have well-known and influential speakers, while on more developed markets such speakers have long been the norm.
According to BuzzSumo, the same content communicated by a company and a specific person will be perceived differently. Specifically, such content from a person will be perceived 56% more effectively coming from a person. What does this mean for companies? Only that they themselves become media. Because when a crisis happens and company’s speakers are unknown to its key stakeholders and do not participate in public dialogue, its chances for saving reputation significantly decrease.
QUESTION #5. How soon does company reputation recover from a serious public crisis?
Depends on several factors. How well-known was a company prior to the public incident and what kind of reputation it had? If an unknown company gained notoriety because of a negative incident, it did not lose good reputation but gained bad one. And this bad reputation now its starting point for public communications. Overall, a business that’s been a good employer, producer, or service provider has greater chances to restore its reputation with fewer losses. However, different reputation risks influence business differently. According to Deloitte Crisis of Confidence Report 2017, to fully restore corporate reputation after its employer brand was damaged may take 2-5 years. Consequently, effective ‘treatment’ of corporate reputation after a bad crisis depends on how the company was perceived coming into the crisis and how its stakeholders viewed it when negative mentions first appeared.
Marina Starodubska, TLFRD