Whether or not there’s such a thing as bad publicity has been a matter of various opinions for decades.
There’s less disagreement, however, about whether a company facing negative press should respond to the media’s challenges.
Media relations professionals to whom Direct Selling News posed the question “When do you meet criticism head on, and when do you let sleeping dogs lie?” said it’s almost always better to meet it.
“You just can’t ignore it,” says Crayton Webb, owner and chief executive officer of Dallas-based Sunwest Communications, which represents several direct selling clients. “Too many companies think that if they don’t answer the phone or the media inquiry or the tweet that it will just go away. But they’re going to cover the story with or without you.”
Direct Selling Association President Joe Mariano agrees. “The right thing to do is engage and tell your story,” he says. “Recognize and acknowledge that it’s your perspective and that it may be biased, but back it up with data and factual information.”
More than once over the last two years Plano, Texas-based AdvoCare has been questioned by the press about claims from dissatisfied past Distributors. And each time, the company responded—sometimes extensively and sometimes creatively.
Aside from granting an in-person interview with its Chief Legal Officer Allison Levy, AdvoCare responded to a 2016 story in ESPN the Magazine & Outside the Lines with a lengthy written statement, providing further context and perspective to a narrative this industry often has to correct: that all direct sales opportunities are pyramid schemes. And when ESPN brought its cameras to AdvoCare headquarters to ask questions about a class action lawsuit, AdvoCare cameras recorded as ESPN cameras rolled.
“When ESPN showed up at the office we had three choices,” AdvoCare CEO Brian Connolly told a SUCCESS Partners University audience in 2016. “Not respond to the fact that they were going to do a story; respond in writing; or meet them face to face.” Filming the filmers allowed the company to present “a balanced perspective” to Distributors, which diffused the issue internally, Connolly says.
How to respond
As with most business strategies, effective media relations is part science and part art.
The science: Have clear, on-brand messages and specific procedures for who talks to the press and under what circumstances. It’s also wise to determine in advance how your company will respond in a crisis, says Jen Phillips, founder of 4L Strategies, a freelance writing and public relations consultancy in New Hampshire. This will help you when it’s time for the art: an empathetic response. Showing empathy is critical when someone is unhappy with your organization, Phillips says. “I think a lot of brand crises could be shortened considerably if those tasked with responding formed responses from a position of empathy. It is easier to put yourself on the other side of the crisis when one isn’t happening. Take the time to crisis plan. Drill on it.” Don’t follow the now-infamous lead of the BP CEO who said, impulsively, about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, “I want my life back.”
Even if the empathy comes a bit late, it’s better than never. After Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on tape insulting his Uber driver he apologized, saying “It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.”
Phillips believes there are some “few and far between” cases where staying quiet may be an advantage. If you pre-empt a negative press report, for example, “it could end up drawing more attention to a story than it otherwise would have had,” she says. And responding to a negative story “could wrap you or your company into a piece that has no benefit for you.”
Evaluate each opportunity to respond to press inquiries in terms of the long-term effect it will have on your organization. “Think about your core audience,” Phillips advises. “Will they read the story? Will they wonder why you aren’t in it at all?”
If you choose to stay quiet, though, just remember that the story will likely run anyway, Webb says. “It’s not like they’re going to go down the street and cover the muffin festival.”
Win At PR
There are so many ways to influence your company’s profile online, on the air and in print. Our experts gave us six strategies that will help you get positive results from interactions with the media.
Educate Your Field
Make sure your salespeople know what they can and cannot say about their experience with your company and about the products they’re selling. Consultants need to understand and comply with government regulations as well as the industry’s ethical codes of conduct.
Guide Your Field
Give the field talking points and rich, on-brand content to share in person and on social media. And go deeper than just promotions for products and services. Provide great stories about your company’s economic development impact, the scientific breakthroughs your researchers are making or the awards your entrepreneurs and products are winning. “If the only thing that direct sellers do is respond to the negative, we’re missing the opportunity to define our own brand story,” says Crayton Webb, owner and chief executive officer of Sunwest Communications.
“Too many companies think that if they don’t answer the phone or the media inquiry or the tweet that it will just go away.”
— Crayton Webb, owner and CEO, Sunwest Communications
Build Meaningful Community Connections
Be a good corporate citizen in your headquarters’ neighborhood, and encourage your salespeople to contribute to the well-being of people in their communities. One of Webb’s proudest such moments, he says, was when he worked for Mary Kay and a group of consultants drove their pink Cadillacs to their state capitol to lobby for a bill to stop domestic violence. “If you can establish a reputation and a rapport in your community, that will hold you in good stead,” says Joe Mariano, president of the Direct Selling Association (DSA).
Establish Positive Relationships With Reporters
“During a crisis you cannot expect them to deliver positive coverage,” says Founder of 4L Strategies Jen Phillips. “The nature of a crisis means that something has gone wrong. But if you have been honest and helpful in the past and have spent the time to build trust you are more likely to have your perspective covered.”
Lean On The Direct Selling Association
The DSA exists not only to provide industry and ethical guidance but to help member companies talk about the direct selling model, which remains a mystery to much of the mainstream media. The association monitors press coverage and provides toolkits to companies to help them respond “with consistent, positive messages and data that can answer misunderstandings,” Mariano says.
Take As Much Time As You Can Get
“Too often, the person returning the reporter’s call is concerned with making sure the reporter has exactly what he or she wants as opposed to discerning what’s best for the company,” Webb says, noting that asking questions to determine the reporter’s angle and his or her other sources can buy you valuable time to formulate an effective response.
“With the internet, information and perspectives live forever,” says Direct Selling Association President Joe Mariano. “Something that dates back years and should have disappeared might still be cited as relevant and used to attack the company, even if the issue has been long addressed.”
4L Strategies founder and PR consultant Jen Phillips agrees that your company’s reputation can be made or broken by what lives online. “Google search is important—period,” she says. “If the first page in a search of your company name is full of negative content, it will affect your business.”
So, what to do about the ever-accessible e-archive of nearly everything that’s been published about your company in the last 20 years?
“Get out there and do positive, proactive things to generate positive coverage,” Phillips says. “And do not take shortcuts, like hiring dodgy reputation repair firms that tell you they can scrub results.”
Webb advises his clients to upload their own positive, meaningful content so that less-favorable results fall below the radar. Google loves unique content, so make sure your content marketing team is regularly writing blog entries, uploading videos and, yes, even posting press releases to the web.
“Few people know exactly how search algorithms work,” Webb says. “But I do know that new content is king.”