Man tries to escape bad publicity

How to Handle Bad Press

8 min read • Mar 26, 2021 • Kat Boogaard

Have you heard that all press is good press? Or all publicity is good publicity? Well, that’s not quite true. 

When your small business is on the receiving end of negative publicity and scathing reviews, you’ll likely find yourself wishing for a time when you were flying under the radar. 

You aren’t alone. At a time when consumers have more of a voice and a platform than ever, plenty of companies fear what a public bashing could do to them—especially when numerous studies show that customers place a lot of weight on negative reviews

But here’s the thing: You aren’t perfect, which means you might find yourself in the middle of a public relations crisis at one point or another.

Maybe somebody from your employee’s past accuses them of racially-insensitive behavior. Perhaps a whole group of customers gets sick from a bad batch of your bagels. Or maybe you’re the victim of identity confusion, and your business gets misidentified as a different one.

First things first—breathe in and breathe out. These types of situations are stressful, and they absolutely deserve to be handled with care and consideration. Once you’ve calmed the sense of panic that’s rising from your shoes to your throat, let’s talk about how to deal with a variety of scenarios. 

If Your Business Actually Did Something Wrong…

You’ve been called out. And the worst part? The press is right—you, your employees, or your entire business really did do something wrong. 

Now’s the time to take ownership rather than going on the defensive, as apologies that seem insincere can backfire, harm your reputation, and lead to even more negative press. So how do you take accountability for your error? Let’s clear this up with an example. 

Imagine that you run a barbershop, and you and your employees have been relatively loose about wearing face masks during the pandemic. Your lack of care bothered one vocal customer, and now a brutal Facebook post about your business is making the rounds.

You decide you want to post a statement to your own Facebook page to try to do some damage control. As you craft that post, make sure you keep these tips in mind: 

  • Don’t Rush to an Apology: Hurrying to explain your case and get something out there can lead to a statement that does more harm than good. Take the time to carefully think through what you want to say, and consider consulting a PR firm if you have the resources.
  • Avoid Making Excuses: A big piece of ownership involves resisting the urge to provide justifications for your actions (e.g., “I don’t think you understand how hot a face mask is all day!”). Instead, clearly state that what you did was wrong without tacking on reasoning.
  • Use Active Voice: Active voice is a subtle language change that ups your accountability. For example, you should say “We made a mistake” (that’s active voice) rather than “Mistakes were made” (that’s passive voice).
  • Make Sure You Apologize: It’s amazing how often the critical words “I’m sorry” get missed in an apology—especially a corporate one. Make sure you clearly state your remorse for your actions and bad decisions. |
  • State Your Next Steps: Here’s your chance to walk the walk. Rather than harping on your error and obsessing over what you did wrong, talk about the steps you’ll take to ensure you don’t repeat the same mistake twice (e.g., “Moving forward, masks are mandatory for all staff members and customers. We’ll keep disposable masks available for anybody who doesn’t have their own.”). And the most important part? Actually do it. 

If Your Business Is Being Falsely Accused…

It’s every business owner’s worst nightmare: Somebody is pointing the finger at you for something you didn’t actually do. 

Sticking with our barbershop example, perhaps you and your team have been incredibly strict about health guidelines and safety measures—and you’re baffled as to why someone would say differently.  

Understandably, you’re worried about coming right out and saying, “That’s not true!” will make you look defensive and like you’re shirking responsibility. But, at the same time, you don’t want these falsehoods perpetuated when they could potentially destroy your business.

Now what? Here are a few steps you can take: 

  • Address the Issue: If that lie is continuing to gain traction, you’re going to need to address it on your website and social media accounts. Don’t call out the person specifically (you’re not trying to turn the tide against them), but instead acknowledge that you know what’s being said and clearly state that it’s not true. You can also back up your assertion with evidence, such as information about the safety measures you’ve implemented, photos of your staff, and more. 
  • Resist the Urge to Escalate: When you see a post or review that’s false, it’s understandable that you’ll feel a burning sense of urgency to respond and call that person out. Don’t give in to that temptation. Remember, most people who spread misinformation on the internet are doing so because they want to get a rise out of you—and those engagements can quickly turn toxic. In most cases, you’ll want to acknowledge the issue without interacting with that person directly.
  • Enlist Your Loyal Customers: People (especially social media users) trust fellow consumers more than they trust brands. So if you have some loyal customers willing to go to bat for you, ask them to spread the truth about your business and politely shut down any lies they see being spread around. 
  • Connect With a Legal Expert: If you believe the incorrect claims about your business could seriously damage your reputation and your bottom line, it might be worth connecting with an attorney to see if you have grounds for a defamation lawsuit. Nobody wants to stomach legal fees, but if this could potentially destroy your business, it’s worth pursuing. 

If Your Business Has Been Misidentified as a Different Business…

And finally, there’s the case of mistaken identity. Perhaps a business that shares a similar name to yours did something awful. Your business is completely innocent, but now you’re being tagged in scathing posts and have found yourselves in a firestorm of undeserved bad press.

It happens more often than you might think. Here’s just one example where a Minnesota divorce lawyer named Eric Nelson posted a message to clarify that he wasn’t the same attorney representing Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd. 

This type of confusion can lead to a totally helpless feeling, but rest assured that there are some things you can do to right the ship:

  • Post a Public Statement: Similarly to what the attorney Eric Nelson did above, make a clear statement that you aren’t the business people are looking for. Pin it to the top of your social media profiles, include it in your email signature, and post an alert at the top of your website. It might seem extreme, but do what you need to do to clarify your identity.
  • Change Your Social Media Handles: If you find you’re repeatedly getting tagged or mentioned in social media posts that aren’t relevant to your actual business, it might be worth changing your handles to avoid confusion in the future. While it’ll be a pain in the short-term, it’ll likely save you a lot more headaches in the long run. 
  • Set Up Notifications: You can’t be everywhere at once, but setting up some Google Alerts for your business name and using a social listening tool will help you keep a close eye on what’s being said online. That way, you can address incorrect statements when you see them. You can also ask your loyal customers to address confusion when they see it too. 

Don’t Make Bad Press Even Worse

When you work so hard to build your business, receiving bad publicity is enough to fill you with an overwhelming sense of dread.

Some situations will be easier to recover from than others. But regardless of what hot water you find yourself in, it’s crucial that you think carefully about how to respond appropriately—or you risk making a bad situation worse.

Once you’ve done everything you can to patch things up (and learn from your mistakes, if necessary), it’s time to move on. Remember, even something as majestic as Niagara Falls has its fair share of brutal reviews.

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Kat Boogaard

Based in the great state of Wisconsin, Kat is a freelance writer focused on careers, productivity, and entrepreneurship. When she’s not in front of her computer screen, she’s either hiking with her 2 rescue mutts, baking up a new recipe, or squishing her adorable son. Learn more about her at katboogaard.com.