One of our favorite stories to tell goes back many years here at SLPR, when a former client of ours talked about the fleeting nature of bad publicity. He likened it to a bad haircut.
“Isn’t that true?” he asked. “Much like a bad haircut, isn’t bad publicity gone and forgotten about a week or two later?”
“Yes, that is technically true,” we told him. “The problem is, if it keeps happening again and again, you become known as the person with the bad haircut.”
And let’s face it—that is something no one wants.
Certainly, bad publicity can be a temporary thing. Some negative stories are what we call “one day stories,” the kind that are splashed across the media for one stressful day for the party involved, and then largely forgotten when the media moves on to something else. That said, in 2019, the indelible memory of the Internet can always find a way to bring the bad news back when you least expect it: a snapshot in time…of your bad haircut.
But beyond that, it always seems to us to be defeatist to simply accept bad news, brush it off and move on without doing anything about it. One bad story over a long period of time can be managed and minimized. Two bad stories? Okay, perhaps that can be explained away as well. But when it keeps happening and the same cycle ensues, we have to question whether this strategy is working.
A few years back, we were asked to speak to a group of professional communicators in a health care-based industry that, given the nature of its work, often has the public spotlight upon it. And these communicators frequently received probing calls from the media about issues and problems that sometimes arose in their industry, questions that—if not unfair—were often presumptive and more than a little leading. And yes, that can wear on you. Eventually, they decided that they were done responding to these media inquiries. Essentially saying, “Write your story, but leave us out of it.”
And that’s exactly what the media did—every time. They left one side of the story out of it because the people on that side opted to not comment, rather than respond with a positive key message.
In other words, these communicators—while their frustration was understandable in a way—kept opting for the bad haircut.
We counseled them—implored them, really—otherwise. Letting the story control you is never the best option, and letting stories remain unbalanced in the public eye is a big mistake in the world of public relations. Instead, we told them, you need a new model. Work with the reporter who calls. Find out the issue they are calling about and then, carefully, craft the right message to respond to it—one that shows care, contrition where necessary and corrective action. Do that, and the days of seeing one-sided stories about your organization will be behind you.
They agreed, and beginning that day there was a marked change in the tenor of the stories that were published. Was the “bad news” still reported? Sure. But it was the way it was reported that made all the difference—with context, perspective and balance.
The days of the “bad haircut” for these good people had come to an end. And now, a few years down the road, their new hairstyle is suiting them just fine.