When 'Wait and See' Is the Best Response to Negative Stories

October 2, 2018


Crisis management has always been an essential part of public relations, but the 24-hour news cycle and social media have only increased its importance. PR practitioners have watched with both awe and horror as issues that previously would have been relegated to small corners of local newspapers now balloon into nationwide, or even global, viral stories.

Communicators have internalized the idea that any negative story, no matter how small or localized, can under certain conditions become a major reputational challenge for an organization. You never know when a problem might strike the wrong nerve with the public.

PR professionals can therefore be forgiven for greeting almost any negative issue or story with a heightened response. But not every negative mention warrants a crisis response. Sometimes it’s better to take a wait-and-see approach. For communicators, the good news is that clues about which approach to take are often hiding in your data.

Applying the ‘Streisand Effect’

PR professionals may be familiar with the “Streisand Effect” and what the term means, even if they don’t know about the situation that led to it being coined. In 2003, when Barbra Streisand’s Malibu, Calif., home was included in a public collection of pictures taken by photographer Kenneth Adelman, she sued him for $50 million, alleging he had violated her privacy. However, Adelman had shot the photos not because of her celebrity status, but to illustrate coastal erosion.

People didn’t know the home in the photographs belonged to Barbra Streisand until the lawsuit identified it as hers and drew attention to that fact. Narrowly defined, the “Streisand Effect” occurs when individuals or companies lawyer-up to censor something that most people never would have seen or known about in the first place. Broadly defined, the term has come to mean taking any action that ends up drawing attention to an issue that probably would have been ignored otherwise.

The PR version of the “Streisand Effect” means responding to negative news items that, given their size or placement, would likely have gone unseen by most readers. In responding to such items, organizations draw out the stories and extend them through additional news cycles.

Defining wait and see

Taking a wait-and-see approach doesn’t mean ignoring the problem. It means that not every scenario requires you to immediately break out every crisis-response tool. Sometimes, to defuse bad press you just have to craft a simple statement that corrects an error or provides context, and then post that message on your website and social media channels.

Other times, waiting means doing some analysis before responding, so you can answer questions such as: Does this issue affect our core audience? How negative is the media mention, and what is the scope of the problem it describes? What is the context surrounding the mention? Answers to these questions can likely be found in the demographic data you’ve been collecting about your customers.

Confirming your audience

In your data research, the first step is to confirm your audience. Most brands know precisely who their target audiences are, but it’s always a good idea to look at any demographic data you may have that can verify those assumptions.

When a negative story is published or aired, determining audience impact and then taking a cautious approach is hard for some communicators to stomach, in part because it requires acknowledging the limits of your audience. For example, a brand might recognize that the core audience for craft beer is male, 39 years old and relatively high-income — while secretly hoping that everyone ages 21 to 65, both male and female, is a potential audience.

So when a magazine about healthy eating runs an article criticizing craft beer, and mentions yours by name, it stings. But what if that magazine is targeted at an audience outside your own? Even writing a blog post for your company website refuting the magazine’s points will draw unnecessary attention to the article — and to the criticism.

Monitoring data

Most organizations monitor their press mentions over time. Reanalyzing older data about media coverage can help guide your responses to new negative stories that may arise.

For example, look at older negative mentions and track how the stories spread. If negative articles in a major, local daily newspaper have consistently been picked up by radio and television outlets, take note of the pattern. Determine which media are more likely to see their stories spread — and which mentions tend to fizzle out.
Understanding negativity and scope

If you’ve been tracking and monitoring sentiment about your brand in social media, it helps to compare that information to other data that might be available within your company. A recent study published in the Journal of Advertising Research found that social media sentiment tends to be more pointed and that it skews younger than the overall population. Take these factors into account as you consider whether to respond to negative mentions on social media.

Also keep the issue’s overall scope in mind. While it can be difficult to wait and see how a negative mention will play out during normal news cycles before you respond, it’s also challenging to separate what to address immediately from what to wait out when larger issues are at play.

Social media often makes this challenge even harder, because while traditional news outlets typically focus their reporting resources on a crisis, the nature of social media means that issues from the past can resurface in the form of old tweets or posts that are easy for people to share online. Tangential or even unrelated problems can get thrown into the mix. Before you know it, rather than dealing with the crisis at hand, you’re trying to manage a many-headed Hydra.

If you’ve successfully nurtured your followers and fans on social media, then they will often come to your defense after a negative story appears. One of the more persistent and observable human dynamics on social media is the desire to correct others. Wait a few beats and watch: Will your fans step in to rebut your detractors?

There are times when a negative story calls for an immediate response, such as one that impacts health and safety. Reputational issues are always critical for companies. It can take years to build a good reputation, and only one bad decision or error to throw it into crisis.

Taking the time to analyze and process a negative story, and knowing when and how to respond by using data can be the wisest choice you make for your organization’s overall reputation.

Chip Griffin

Chip Griffin is chief operating officer of CARMA North America, a leading global provider of media intelligence solutions.


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