Surprise! Readiness tips for times when bad news lands on your doorstep

| by S.A. Whitehead
Surprise! Readiness tips for times when bad news lands on your doorstep

There is no shortage of examples of brands getting hauled into horrible, headline-making news events through no fault of their own. From the pitfalls of spokesperson gone wrong (e.g., Jared at Subway), to social media post gone wrong (e.g., Cinnabon and Carrie Fisher's death), the chances of a well known brand finding itself swept up in a nightmare not of their own making are frighteningly good. 

For example, KFC's name got dragged into a story about the London Bridge attack earlier when the public learned that the alleged perpetrators of the horrifying assault on innocent victims might have met frequently at a London KFC — and possibly even hatched some of their despicable plot there. 

It's the kind of guilt-by-association news coverage that causes what you might call bystander-brand damage. The brand, its leadership, employees and customers might not have anything to do with the event, but they still get sucked into round-the-clock negative media coverage. And however you might feel about such wall-to-wall coverage, the fact is that it happens with enough frequency to merit a little advance planning.

In short, you have to be ready to react to a bad situation without further damaging your brand. This, as the Boy Scouts say, means be prepared.

Here are several best practices that can help to limit and control brand damage, beginning with six tips from international public relations pro, Ellen Hartman: 

  1. Always put sympathies and thoughts for any victims first. The main thing with situations like the London attack is to express sympathy for those injured through a statement.
  2. Join city-wide or neighborhood fundraising efforts to help victims at the center of the media storm. 
  3. Step up community relations and meaningful charity work in the area of the event. This casts the brand's name in a positive light despite negative coverage.
  4. Remember that it's not absolutely necessary to provide a direct response about the brand's involvement in an event, aside from something like, "It would be inappropriate to discuss an issue that really has nothing do with our company, and that we were only linked to circumstantially."
  5. Alert chain managers in the area of an event to possibilities and protocol and advise employees to refrain from discussing real or perceived brand involvement even outside work. Remind employees to direct any guest or media questions to a manager, then make sure managers direct the media inquiries to a company spokesperson. Do not hesitate to correct inaccurate information or innuendo, though try to do so behind the scenes, unless the issue develops into a major problem.
  6. Put policies in place and incorporate them into training before a potentially damaging event occurs. Ensure that restaurant leadership and staff know well ahead of time about the kinds of situations that can involve local restaurants and how they might be targeted in a sensitive issue involving anything from terrorism to less-than-glowing restaurant inspection results.

Hartman, who is also president of Atlanta-based Hartman Public Relations, has more than 30 years of experience working with brands such as Arby's, Popeye's and Uncle Maddio's Pizza. On the other hand, the writer of this blog has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist, and spent some of that time trying to get the "slip" on brand leadership, spokespeople and professionals like Hartman, whose job is to provide a buffer between the brand and the media. 

A reporter's perspective

Through those experiences, I have learned how brands can err when they get drawn into a negative news story. I can recall countless instances of disappearing CEOs and spokespeople — or just as bad, doors shut in my face while the camera rolled on a none-too-favorable news story.

I've also learned about what works and what doesn't when breaking news threatens to blacken a brand name, deservedly or not. Here are four pointers:

  • Remember that journalists are people, too. They have loved ones in all kinds of businesses and endeavors and usually are willing to listen objectively. And they can actually help to improve, rather than worsen the situations. Keep this in mind and keep calm when speaking with reporters.
  • Remember that keeping calm is job No. 1. It's understandable that executives and managers panic when a journalist hunts them down to get a juicy quote. Every day we see otherwise competent business owners become irrational nut jobs in an interview because they let a situation get the better of them. Before you speak with a reporter, make sure you're calm and collected. Think hard about a question before answering. Don't rush. Be nice. 
  • Don't try to escape, sneak out, or hide. Face up to the issue. If you don't, the reporter will generally go to another source for answers, meaning that you lose control of your story. Chances are, you will not be pleased about the way your competitors portray you when a journalist turns to them for a needed quote.
  • Take a big breath, slow down and answer questions as honestly and pleasantly as you can. It's OK to say "I don't know," if you don't know. Even if there's a reporter in your face or a photographer hanging from the rafters, you are not required to know all the answers. We seldom hear those three words, "I don't know," anymore, but if you legitimately don't know or aren't sure, give them a shot. Your brand will thank you. 

If you and your brand run this kind of gauntlet, we'd love to hear about lessons learned. Just send us a tweet, Facebook post or email. 


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Marketing / Branding / Promotion

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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