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Handling bad media

How often have you heard that the media makes money out of bad news? It could have been as simple as that, but there is a much more complex system under the hood. One that requires a certain degree of understanding by business executives, and politicians.

public relations with Lenox Mhlanga

Not only do governments appreciate the power of the fourth estate, despotic regimes loathe it so much that they can kill in a vain attempt to silence it. Company executives might not go that far, but would live happily in a world with a highly regulated if not subservient media.

While there may be a degree of good news in today’s media, public relations makes more sense dealing with the bad. If your company operates in public and serves the same, whether through the provision of goods (products) or services, it must inevitably deal with bad news, controversy, and, of course, scandals.

Public relations is about protecting reputations and maintaining a good image. So it goes without saying that when these invaluable assets are under threat, PR is best placed to deal with that.

Like I said at the beginning, bad news is inevitable. What really matters is how one deals with it in a way that won’t leave a bad taste in the mouth.

The old adage in journalism is, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” says Guy Bergstrom, a communication staffer for the Washington House Democrats.

“Reporters hate mysteries. If they think somebody is stonewalling them or lying, they’ll dig and dig forever. It’ll become a crusade to them, a point of principle,” Bergstrom warns.

He goes on to say that there are different types of bad stories.

“Each requires a different type of response. What you do will be different when a bad story is factually wrong versus a matter of opinion. And you should react differently when criticised by the public compared to a professional pundit or critic.”

Many corporates have to deal with rumours, lies and propaganda. Rumours are the nastiest of all three.

“Rumours aren’t confined to neighbourhood gossip. The largest corporations in the world regularly use rumours to their advantage, causing share prices to rise or fall and prompting competitors to start madly developing products, or abandon them,” says Bergstrom.

In Zimbabwe we have politicians, civic society and advocates spreading rumours to hurt rivals, to kill legislation or to advance a specific agenda.

Public figures and corporations at the highest level deal with the constant threat of hearsay, gossip and rumours that are eventually lapped up by the media and published.

Monopolies can destroy small competitors by planting rumours about a discovery that could potentially threaten their hegemony. Ever wonder where the viral messages about how dangerous or contaminated a product by a certain company is on social media comes from?

It sounds nasty, but in some countries we assume to be democratic, it’s standard practice, albeit one that is frowned upon. Countless bright ideas never see the light of day because some big chequebooks have been flashed at promising entrepreneurs to keep them quiet.

Worse still, a corporate giant using its muscle by threatening to withdraw its ad-spend from a popular publication.

In the age of fake news, there is no guarantee where the source of some of the damaging rumours are coming from. While some hackers could well be making a killing through click-baiting, some could be hired guys that are paid to write a damaging story about a rival.

Some corporates plant pre-emptive rumours to test the reaction of the market. This is what big brands do, by employing certain influencers to “leak” details about a new version of a product in what are called “sneak previews.”

If the market sentiment is receptive, then the launch is safe. If not, well…it’s back to the drawing board.

What if the rumours are inbound? The convention in PR is that corporates never comment on rumours. The reason being that they might get stronger when you inadvertently feed them with attention.

“A common mistake in combating rumours is to come on too strong when denying them. The press and public may then think that “thou doth protest too much.’ Is it possible the rumour is true because you’re reacting so vehemently?” says Bergstrom, writing for The Balance.

It does suggest a defence, however. You might turn the rumours against the nasty people who use them by being seemingly random — but strategic — about when you ignore rumours and when you protest.

Bergstrom says that instead of shouting “That’s not true!”, respond with a brief but well-placed comment that will turn the attention of the press and public to you or your business. Make them wonder what you’re up to and what’s coming next.

Humans are naturally attracted to mayhem. We are also concerned or follow the lives of public figures such as politicians and celebrities. In a country where corporate leaders also hog the headlines for the wrong reasons, rumours are bound to follow them like a bad smell.

It becomes a challenge for public relations practitioners when they have to separate the personas of corporate leaders and that of the businesses they lead. When rumours about a Ceo’s conduct or private life threaten the reputation of his company, then, as the Americans say, it’s Splitsville!

Lenox Mhlanga is lead consultant at Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants, a public relations agency. He can be contacted at: lenox@magnacarta.co.zw

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