PR Disasters: Death by 1,000 Cuts Can Begin with a Single Nick

Posted by: in Communication Strategy, Public Relations Practice on April 5, 2012

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal ran a provocative — and wrong — look at some recent “PR fiascos” involving BATS Global Markets, JetBlue and Global Payments. All of the companies suffered major black eyes, but the Journal concluded that the damage done was minimal, even in this age of viral sharing. The paper’s take-away?

The muted reaction to these fairly big corporate messes raises an intriguing possibility: In a socially-networked world where investors, customers and employees are judge, jury and news editors, companies may be able to survive foul-ups better than in the old days of “traditional” news and corporate spin.

What the analysis conveniently forgets is that reputations aren’t forged overnight. One viral airline video, no matter how terrible, isn’t likely to prompt people to cancel bookings. (Especially at an airline such as JetBlue, which has invested a tremendous amount in building a customer-first image.) It’s the second, and the third, and the fourth videos that start to chip away at a corporation’s long-term image. The WSJ piece acknowledges as much, but not until  the very last sentence.

But the real long-term impact of minor scandals isn’t best measured by short-term actions of consumers, but how a company gets branded by journalists over the long term. Every beat reporter knows the stereotypes of the companies they cover, and those stereotypes — over time — color coverage. It’s the reason that Apple products are assumed to be innovative, regardless of the reality. It’s the reason why American carmakers are only now reversing quality perceptions forged decades ago.  Those are the obvious examples, but the same thinking influences how almost every company gets covered, in at least a subtle way.

As a reporter who covered the pharmaceutical industry 10 years ago, I’m amazed at the way long-held narratives still creep into coverage. The halo of a sound R&D arm can blunt even a string of clinical failures, and perceptions about strategies from long-departed executives are still provide the basis for today’s storylines. These perceptions are too strong to be uprooted by a single, runaway Internet meme.

That doesn’t mean that PR folks can rest easy. There’s no doubt that corporate stereotypes held by journalists are now impacted by chatter on social networks, where errors that were one small and private — a misunderstanding of an embargo, a disgruntled customer — get broadcast to a larger, more influential group. Indeed, there are far more ways now for journalists to compare vital online tempests to their existing perceptions.

Rather than worrying about handling one single issue well to preserve or build a reputation with both media and journalists, smart companies now have to worry about handling hundreds or thousands of issues consistently and thoughtfully, to prevent long-term damage. Yes, BATS Global Markets, JetBlue and Global Payments may have all sustained only a small wound. But add that wound to another and another and another. It doesn’t take long to get to the proverbial death by a thousand cuts.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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One Response

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  1. Love the thinking here, Brian. It’s really interesting that the pendulum is swinging this direction in the media … a few months ago, brands were getting hysterical if anyone said anything bad about them. Hoping that the WSJ’s perspective here doesn’t become the norm … because you’re absolutely right. When a company has a brush with danger as these three have, they should be asking themselves a few important questions:

    1. Did I respond well to this particular issue (i.e., did I recognize it quickly, fix it and communicate proactively about it to the public)?

    2. Do I have a *proactive* crisis management protocol that has a strong component of digital associated with it (i.e., do I understand my most likely issues? Do I know what keywords people use when they talk about them? Do I know who is likely to influence public perception, both for and against me?)?

    3. Most importantly, have I learned everything that I need to learn about my business, and corrected any inherent flaws in my operation?

    If people begin to brush off online issues and ignore the questions above, I think that it bodes ill for their long-term business.

    Thanks for sharing your thinking.

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