Small business? Here’s your expert guide to managing bad publicity

Small business? Here’s your expert guide to managing bad publicity

Samantha Bartlett

The saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is one that should only ever be ascribed to Hollywood and never applied in business.

In a social media-driven technological world, companies nowadays face more crisis communication situations than ever before, yet surprisingly few have cohesive strategies to deal with reputational risks that could arise at a moment’s notice.

In a perfect world companies would never screw up, and all their clients and service providers would be happy. But in reality at some time or another someone will have an issue with your business, whether valid or not.

And that grievance has the potential to escalate to massive proportions through the power of social media – or in worst case scenario spill over into traditional media – if it’s not resolved quickly and efficiently.

Most small businesses, in particular, operate without the budget to keep professional communications specialists on retainer, yet are likely to take the hardest hit to the bottom line if something goes seriously wrong – and viral.

While having access to communications specialists is the ideal on the modern business playing field, an ounce of common sense and being The (Wo)Man with A Plan should see most small to medium enterprises through all but the worst hiccups.

But what is that Plan, and how does a business implement it?

The fact is that it’s simple to draft a plan, but much more difficult to execute long-term, because people get busy and take their eyes off the ball.

In terms of internal structures, it’s really not complicated:

  • Take a step back and objectively review your levels of staff training and how employees interact with the public at large. The best case scenario is to minimise the number of complaints by having well trained staff who do their jobs efficiently and don’t rub people up the wrong way;
  • Ensure that the reporting process for complaints is prominently noted in the staff induction manual, because every company has a turnover of employees and it’s something that line managers might forget to tell newbies;
  • Ensure that everybody in the company knows to channel complaints to the right person and that none ever fall through the cracks; most people are unlikely to resort to public forums if their grievances have been settled timeously by an efficient manager;
  • Make one senior company representative responsible for the investigation and management of all complaints that do arise and train them to properly obtain the facts from all parties concerned;
  • BUT appoint a senior crisis management team to review the more serious complaints and collectively decide on a course of action; and
  • Set specific feedback timeframes so that people with grievances don’t feel like they’ve been forgotten.

Where it does get more complicated is that nowadays just about every company has an online presence, be it simply a website or accounts on any number of social media platforms.

In fact except for local corner cafés, your business may as well not exist if it doesn’t exist online. And the internet is permanently hungry.

So unless you want to be on page 200 of Google’s results when potential customers search for your company’s specific service offering, you need to feed the beast – often.

Online activity in the form of blog posts, SEO optimisation and social media activity all help push you up the rankings and make your business easier to find, but actively putting your brand out there is a double-edged sword for smaller firms.

From a crisis communications point of view, the biggest problems are created by managers who relegate the creation of online content or the moderation of external comment to junior employees, and let’s face it – most smaller companies are guilty of that because their managers are simply too busy with the business of, um… business.

But think about it; if a global brand with an army of communications “experts” like Coca-Cola can invoke the ire of an entire country as it did with its very geographically challenged Tweet of a snow-covered map of Russia, realistically how easy would it be for your company to get it horribly wrong if you leave your online content in the hands of juniors?

So Part 2 of your Plan should include the following:

  • Include management of your online real estate in the job description of a senior manager who has intimate understanding of the brand, the company, your target audience and your messaging so that it is part of his or her daily workload, not an ad hoc duty;
  • Take responsibility for your social media channels and never leave them unmonitored;
  • Respond to complaints on social media instantly, but try to move them offline as quickly as possible. The easiest way to do that, depending on the nature of the post, is with a variation of “thank you for bringing this to our attention and we’d like to discuss this further; please let us have your details or alternatively contact XXX person at this email address so that we can address your complaint directly”. If the platform allows, you can also send the person a direct message reiterating your desire to address the situation;
  • Content for blogs and social media posts can be created by someone more junior than the manager responsible, but nothing ever goes live until it has been approved by that person;
  • Ensure your website settings do not allow for the posting of unmoderated public comments; and
  • Finally, consider all your potential posts carefully and objectively. Think about whether they may be offensive to any particular race, gender or interest group and what the repercussions of a post might be for your brand. We all have personal points of view and often we have strong feelings about specific issues, but before you nail your brand’s colours to a particular mast, consider all the possible consequences.

Sometimes, though, we do everything right, we follow the Plan and the wheels still fall off because sh!t happens and we can’t control the world.

As the owner of a small or medium-size business, if you’re faced with a full-blown media crisis and you can’t afford to appoint a crisis communications specialist (which would be the ideal, even on a short-term basis), then here’s what you do:

  • Appoint a single company spokesperson;
  • Assemble your crisis management team to assess the situation and collectively decide on the best course of action;
  • Tell the truth;
  • Act quickly to address the situation;
  • Request media questions in writing and provide written responses so that you retain a paper trail of exactly what’s been asked and answered and that you have time to think before firing off a response;
  • Communicate outcomes clearly and concisely, without going into too much detail; and
  • Be confident in your communication, show compassion if necessary and never be defensive.

In the age of technology there’s a good reason why media and crisis communications experts exist, and why the ones who are effective at their jobs tend to be very busy. On the one hand the internet offers brands so much reach, but at the same time delivers so much clutter that they increasingly battle to stand out.

But perhaps more crucially, evolving technology also means excruciating public pitfalls lurk around every corner. These are particularly perilous waters for small businesses without expert communications help. It’s an absolute certainty that planning ahead will make all the difference when that potentially lethal blow strikes.

Samantha Bartlett is Managing Director of Bartlett Communications, a specialist media, reputation management and crisis communications consultancy based in Cape Town.