How Bad PR Can Kill Your Business (and How to Avoid It)

It's hard to avoid bad press completely, but there are important steps you can take to prevent negative situations before they happen.

In the age of social media, the speed at which bad news can spread makes it tough for businesses to manage a crisis. However, it’s crucial that your organization have a set plan in place to prevent negative situations — or, if necessary, deal with issues when they arise.

Take it from me having a plan saved my business when an overzealous government regulator closed down my sole supplier of our top selling product and told the press that the product was unsafe. We anticipated in our planning this very scenario and made a plan B and fought back.

Are you confident in your business’s ability to both prevent and deal with potentially negative PR situations? Follow these steps to keep your team ahead of the game.

1. Keep your data secure.

When it comes to public relations, data security needs to be top of mind, no matter your industry. According to David Wagner, CEO of the email encryption and data security organization Zix, companies in less-regulated industries–retail, for example–may not have as robust security as they truly need. But this is based on an incomplete understanding of data breaches. “Regulatory fines and fees are damaging, but the damage to consumer confidence, brand standing, and the bottom line are much worse,” Wagner says.

In other words, a data breach could seriously impact the trust of your customers, leading to lower sales and, in the worst-case scenario, a fatal fall from the marketplace. And don’t think small businesses are immune: Nearly two-thirds of all cyber attacks target smaller companies.

“Hackers focus on the value of the data, not on the size of the business,” Wagner says. “As hackers devise more advanced and less recognizable threats, organizations that continue to settle for cybersecurity strategies that rely on a ‘feeling’ of security are taking even greater risks in the coming year.”

Do your business and your customers a favor and place data security at the top of your priorities. Meet with a data security firm to find out how you can start taking better care of your digital information and put those new processes into place immediately.

2. Be proactive in addressing potential workplace harassment.

Workplace harassment has become an especially important topic recently, with allegations spanning numerous industries. Although the problem is complex, the fix in your business should be simple: Implement a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment and begin enforcing it today.

This means making it clear to all employees that they are both able and encouraged to come forward and report possible misconduct. Emphasize that all accusations will be taken with the utmost seriousness and pursued to their full extent, even when high-level employees are implicated. Establish an environment that is both open and trusting, so employees feel comfortable in coming forward, knowing they will not face retribution.

If you’re still concerned your employees will feel hesitant, make it easier by establishing a hotline or online process that allows them to report an incident anonymously. You can also establish numerous options for in-person reporting. Employees might report misconduct to their own manager, to human resources, or to a designated company leader, choosing the route that feels most comfortable to them.

Creating an environment where accusations of workplace harassment are taken seriously and handled appropriately isn’t just something you should do to avoid bad press. It’s critical to fostering an environment where all employees can feel safe and valued.

3. Establish a quality control process for all content that your brand releases.

From marketing materials to blog content to even a single tweet, a poorly thought-out message can have an absolutely devastating impact on a company and quickly lead to a PR disaster.

Avoid a communications crisis by designating a specific point person in your organization whose sole responsibility is to review all company content before it hits mass release, including tweets. A ticking PR time bomb could be buried in even the most mundane or seemingly lighthearted statements.

4. Have a crisis management plan in case something does occur.

Let’s face it: You can’t avoid all negative situations, which is why it’s important to be prepared beforehand. “Thousands of organizations hit by natural and man-made disasters will have suffered far more damage than would have occurred with a fully developed crisis communications plan in place,” says Jonathan Bernstein  President of Bernstein Crisis Management.

The first steps of such a plan have already been addressed here — anticipate crisis ahead of time and have the right people looking over all communication efforts. But it’s also important for your company to remember to focus its efforts internally.

When dealing with a tough situation, make sure to clearly communicate the circumstances to all stakeholders and coach them on what they should say when asked about it. Have a concise, straightforward company message available to all employees and present a united front to the press. It can even be helpful to develop general statements ahead of time for more common situations, such as personal losses or natural disasters.

Obviously, it’s best to forestall a PR catastrophe by preventing situations that might cause them in the first place. And by putting the right processes in place, you will be more prepared for a PR crisis if one should strike. Remember, good crisis management comes down to good communication, so do the preventative legwork now and saveyour business — and yourself — a massive headache down the road.

 

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The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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