As 2014 draws to a close, now is the time for business owners and marketers to reflect on what they've learned in the past 12 months. There have been a lot of examples of good marketing and PR, but today, I would like to focus on what what can be learned from the year's examples of bad press. Despite what some people say, there is such a thing as bad publicity. But how a company plans for and responds to crises can lessen their blow and even prevent problems from happening.

If there's one thing business owners should learn from 2014, it's that there is such a thing as bad publicity, and it can destroy a business. One company that has received a lot of bad press in the past couple of years is SeaWorld. The 2013 documentary Blackfish won an Academy Award for its depiction of what many believe is animal cruelty. Though the movie was released last year, its effects continue to rattle SeaWorld. Revenue is down, as the number of visitors has dropped significantly. And in California, laws were proposed that would make it illegal for the company to conduct some of its operations. SeaWorld didn't counter the documentary's allegations aggressively or effectively and has paid a huge price. Even though it made concessions, such as increasing the size of animal facilities, for the company, the overall effect of the bad publicity has been negative. Earlier this month, CEO Jim Atchison said he would step down on January 15, 2015.

An example of an organization that responded (relatively well) to controversy is the NFL. 2014 saw several instances of off-the-field violence from NFL players, and the league was under massive pressure to do something, while at the same time trying to please the players association and the owners league. It has certainly been a rough process, but the end result has been a new, stronger domestic violence policy to which most of the parties involved can agree. Make no mistake, the publicity the NFL received as a result of the violence issues was not good, and I'm sure the organization wishes it could've avoided it entirely. But the NFL responded in a positive way and made positive changes to resolve the issue and move forward. And the league looks better for it than if it had just tried to ignore the issue.

The only thing better than responding well to bad publicity is preventing it from happening. Business owners, marketers, and PR professionals should create a crisis communication plan that identifies how to respond to situations that may affect a company. The plan should cover whom to call, what to say to the media, and what to do to address the problem. For example, businesses should have a plan in place in case their systems are breached. Being able to quickly notify customers, resolve the security issue, and handle media questions can help a business turn a crisis into a chance to improve its brand's image.

Developing a plan for crisis communication can also help a business avoid dangers as well as be prepared for bad things when they happen. Business owners should look at the company's processes to see if there's anything that could cause controversy if it became public. Once such potential issues are identified, the business owner can think of the best ways to explain them under questioning. For example, Subway and other restaurant chains have caught flack for their ingredients. Sometimes the concerned is warranted, but other times the problem comes from misunderstandings about science that some people choose to exploit. To prevent being caught off guard, restaurants should be able to explain and defend every ingredient in their recipes.

Similarly, if there's a part of the business process (or recipe, as in the previous example) that the owner knows would be hard to defend, then it's time to change that policy. Doing this could have helped Uber prevent a lot of the ire it gained last week when the company used "surge pricing," charging four times as much for fares, when people were trying to flee the area in Sydney where a gunman took hostages. As soon as the matter became public, Uber backtracked and began offering free rides, and promised to refund the money of those who were charged the high fares. If people at the company had simply asked themselves, "What will happen if people learn we are using surge pricing on people fleeing a terror event?" and "How would we defend this action?" they could have avoided the bad publicity. (Uber gets plenty of that already.)

If handled properly, bad publicity can be good for a business, but it's not something that business owners should seek. Any positive impact a business can gain by courting controversy could be better attained by applying the same effort to good marketing and PR. Urban Outfitters has gained attention on many occasions by selling shirts that could be considered in bad taste. In years past, the company caught flack for selling a Holocaust shirt, and this year it was a blood-stained Kent State hoodie. Instead of putting effort into designing shirts that gain attention but few sales, it would be better to expend that energy creating something that people share because they like it and want to buy it.

There's an old saying that the Chinese use the same word for "crisis" as for "opportunity." This isn't true about the Chinese language, but the point of the saying is still accurate. When business owners prepare properly, they can turn potential problems into situations to showcase what's best about their company. As business owners head into 2015, they should remember that there is such a thing as bad publicity, but they don't have to get it, and if does happen, it doesn't have to define them.

Published on: Dec 22, 2014
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