When a bush fire starts, it spreads with devastating speed. It feeds on everything on its path and bludgeons into a nearly unmanageable conflagration until after days of back breaking work, it is finally brought under control.
The destruction it leaves behind is often severe. But when investigations into its cause commence, it is often found that the cause was a tiny spark caused by a seemingly harmless source.
A bush fire is a perfect allegory to a problem that has been plaguing businesses all over the world. It’s called Negative Publicity and it drives firms into having daylight nightmares.
What it is
Negative Publicity is the adverse publicity that a firm may incur due to a particular reason, which may lead to potentially disastrous consequences. It results in the firm’s reputation among its customers and competitors being badly tarnished. Needless to say, it hurts business real bad.
What causes it
Like the tiny spark that can start a bush fire, the causes of negative publicity can be various:
- Disillusioned (ex) employee
- Angry customers
- Misleading interpretations of blogs/forum posts/interview excerpts
- Mischief mongers spreading unsubstantiated rumors.
While an allegation might be true, more often than not its the unsubstantiated rumors that inflict more damage.
Why it spreads
This is a classic quagmire. A firm spends millions on promoting itself online through endless publicity campaigns. It places advertisements, sponsors discussion boards, forums et al till its name is well known to all those who matter. Then all of a sudden, one stray comment on how the last blog post by the firm’s CEO hurt the sentiment of a potential customer surfaces. Like all things that should not spread, it snowballs and garners attention from everyone who thinks he is somebody. The forums are now pasted with hate mail and the firm loses face overnight. The very tool of publicity, the Internet, has stung back and stung deep.
As Winston Churchill once said :
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
That is the problem with Internet. It gets word around faster than anything else. In the good old days of verbal communication, negative publicity was not the worst that could happen. It could be quarantined. With the Internet, the only way that is possible is by plugging out the entire world.
Another important factor is people’s vulnerability.
Eg: Imagine a firm that sells baby diapers. Its product is popular and soaks up more than half of its customers’ discomforts. Unknown to its customers, it had to let go one of its employees who claimed mistreatment at the hands of the firm’s administration. He was unsuccessful at proving himself but had to be let go because he was now ‘malware’ for the firm.
Jobless and disgruntled, he vows to get back at the firm and starts a rumor about the potential health hazards of its diapers. The rumors claim unhealthy amounts of bleach to be present in the diaper linings. If exposed to frequently, it may result in irreparable skin damage and chemical poisoning in both the baby and its caretaker.
For a scientifically informed and inclined population, such rumors are meaningless. But just how willing the average mother is to let science disprove the rumor, especially when it concerns her baby’s health is well known. Every mother in the country is shocked. The husbands too are alarmed at the dangers their wives and babies will be exposed to. The diaper firm is sued for millions within a week.
- Clearly, business does not flourish under negative publicity.
- Firms may have to call back all their products.
- Shares of the firm may take a frightening dip.
- All of the above may even lead to the firm having to shell out millions as compensation, and the venture might even go bust.
How do you counter it?
The golden rule is- Don’t Panic! Here’s what you should do if ever if you have to :
- Look into the problem
Identify the cause if it’s not obvious. Get experts to verify/debunk any claims/rumors before making a public statement.
- Work out a plan of counterattack
Get the best minds from within your firm and if need be, hire professionals from outside(say, a professional negative publicity management firm) to come out with convincing statements to counter allegations.
- Give out concrete proofs of safe-practices
The best way to gain face is to quash unsubstantiated rumors with hard hitting facts. Stage numerous public demonstrations proving your point. Use the power of the Internet to reach out. This might be tricky if you really are the defaulter. In that case, get the best minds to mitigate the damage as best as possible.
- Follow up progress continually
After the initial storm has subsided, do not let up with re-building your image. Come out with attractive offers, make the customers take a tour of the production plant if relevant, get experts to vouch for your products, the works. Once dented, your image will be vulnerable to attacks for some time to come.
Prevention always works better though
“A stitch in time saves nine”
Of course, your aim should always be to steer clear of such occurrences completely. Dedicate a team to keep a sharp eye on all fronts, including the Internet(blogs, forums, social networks, search engine rankings, websites of competitors etc), for any comments or developments that might turn ugly. Although it can never be all-encompassing, it’s better to be aware of possibilities than being caught unawares.
P.S: We have been receiving numerous e-mails enquiring if we offer negative publicity management services. We do offer negative publicity management and have been doing so for a number of our clients – please get in touch with us on sales [at] vinove.com for further information.