Saving your company image

Saving your company image

There's not an awful lot that shonky companies can do if they have apublicity disaster. They treat people dishonestly and deserve to be exposed for what they are. No one trusts them, no one believes them andit's impossible for them to reverse the effects of bad publicity. Good companies can have publicity disasters too - but there are things they can do to recover the situation.

There are many types of crises faced by companies in the IT industry:l sudden departure of a corporate executivel financial disastersl product recallsl discovery of a major defect in a productl a major client or reseller dumps the company and goes to a competitorl criminal activity by a key figurel environmental disaster.

Your response to a publicity disaster will depend on whether it's something that's happened locally or whether it's a result of your overseas parent company.

If it's an overseas problem you will usually have strict guidelines to follow, and heaven help you if you decide to do anything different. If it's a home-grown disaster you're going to have to handle it yourself.

The first thing to do is adjust your stance. Don't go into cover-up mode. Rather, go into take-it-on-the-chin mode.

Nothing excites a journalist like seeing someone trying to cover up bad news. The faster you run, the faster they'll chase you. The more you try to hide, the deeper they'll dig.

If you look at major PR disasters in the past, it's easy to see the greatest damage was done when companies tried to conceal their activities. If you're honest and straightforward you will nearly always minimise the damage.

A lot of crisis plans advise you to be proactive, to the point of taking the bad news to journalists before they hear it from other sources. I'm not sure this is always a good idea as it's not unusual for journalists to hear of PR disasters but choose not to follow them up. Last year, for example, we had a particularly embarrassing case. It involved some very juicy personal details being exposed. The news had broken in the US first and we had to speedily prepare a local response.

It was such a juicy story we were sure it would get a lot of damaging coverage in the local media. We waited and waited. The only journalist who contacted us did so to warn us of what he'd heard. He told us he didn't plan to pursue it. Every journalist who heard about it ignored it out of a sense of professional decency. If we had rushed out to counter the story, we probably would have forced them into dealing with the story. So, don't be too proactive.

Get organised. Decide who is going to talk to the media. Usually, this should be the most senior person in the country. Make sure other people in the company know to refer all inquiries to the spokesperson. If you don't have the necessary information, be honest about it and tell the journalists when you will be able to get it.

Be as open as you can. Understand the legal restrictions on what you can or can't say. Many lawyers advise you to take the "no comment" route regardless. Be wary of following that advice. If you want your views represented, you have to talk to journalists. If you don't give them information, they're going to look for other sources. Those other sources probably won't be as favourable to your company as you will.

Tell the truth. If you lie or tell half-truths, you'll make the situation worse. You only have to be caught lying once to destroy your credibility for a surprisingly long time.

Be objective. Journalists are not your friends or your enemies. They just have a job to do. Don't think personal relationships will prevent journalists writing a critical story, and don't take it personally if they do.

Be personal. Journalists and the public tend to be more sympathetic to a person than to a company. If you are the spokesperson, don't hide behind your company.

Tell your staff and business partners. Your staff will be upset if they hear bad news about their company in the media. You should make every effort to ensure it comes from you first. The same goes for your channel partners and important customers. Don't panic. PR is a game of averages, and all-important companies get their share of bad press. Don't expect to avoid your fair share. If you handle it honestly and openly you may be surprised how quickly your image will recover.

Steve Townsend is managing director of Recognition public relations. E-mail himat

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