One of my least favorite PRisms is, "Any publicity is good publicity." I cringe when I hear it. I used to think that I was wrong about it; after all, it was in my college textbooks, I read it in articles and blogs, I heard board members repeat it. Oscar Wilde said it: "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." I even heard it re-iterated by the P.T. Barnum character in "The Greatest Showman" (most attribute the original "There's no such thing as bad publicity" quote to the real Barnum):
Jenny Lind: "Mr. Barnum. I believe I have heard about you from my friends in America."
P.T. Barnum: "Well, if you've heard of me all the way over here, I must be doing something right."
Jenny Lind: "Or something very, very wrong."
P.T. Barnum: "In the world of publicity, there is hardly a difference."
Jenny Lind: "I believe that is the start of a scandal, Mr. Barnum."
I've come to feel more and more strongly that - at least for the nonprofit field - "any publicity is good publicity" is a failing principle. Granted, free publicity is hard to come by, but just because someone throws out a moldy old blanket doesn't mean you should embrace it. That stink is hard to shake.
I think nonprofits are particularly at risk of the effects of bad publicity. When your organization rests on its reputation which feeds trust to your donors who feed your bottom line, you must protect your reputation. The risk is even greater when you consider your efforts to attract new donors. Your current donors who are already invested in your mission may be able to overcome a little bad press, but new donors you are trying to cultivate may not recover. The first impression will be the most lasting.
We see this same principle at play in the business community. Chipotle is still trying to rebound from its e coli outbreak from 2015. According to Business Insider, "Customers who rarely or never eat at Chipotle are the most likely to hold food safety concerns against the chain." They report that 60% of people who weren't regular customers before the outbreak indicate the issue had a "significantly negative impact or a complete loss of trust in the brand." If Chipotle who offers foil-wrapped, belly-filling goodness can't bounce back, how much harder would it be for an organization offering far less tangible (even if more meaningful) results?
So, how do you maximize opportunities for positive publicity and minimize the impact of negative publicity?
1. Cultivate Relationships
Know the press and let the press know you before publicity happens. Sometimes, this is more lucky break than strategy. When I was the Director of Marketing at The Don Bosco Centers, I received a call out of the blue from a Kansas City Star social services reporter looking for a quote for a story. I am so glad I picked up that call. Over my years there, she would touch base with me about other stories she was writing, and often when I sent out a press release she was the first to pick it up. Your responsiveness to the press when they need you will be an asset when you need them.
2. Pursue the Press
Look for opportunities to position yourself as an expert in the field. If you see a story in the paper that speaks to an issue your organization addresses, send a follow-up to that reporter introducing yourself. That way, the next time they have a similar story or if they need to do a follow-up story, they will have a new resource. Know of a local station working on a series of stories around an issue you are familiar with? Offer yourself as a resource.
Our local PBS affiliate use to participate in the Public Insight Network, an opportunity for experts in any field to be placed into the American Public Media's virtual Rolodex as a future source of information. When our local affiliate did a series on housing issues in Kansas City, it was from this database they found experts and sources to feed their series.
3. Develop a Crisis Management Plan
I've written about this before (see below), so I won't dwell on it again here, but it definitely applies! Plan for the worst so that if it happens, you are not caught off guard. Your crisis management plan will help you work bad things out for good.
4. Work on the Spin
Be clear about your most important tenets and be ready to redirect any point back to there. With some practice, planning, and thought, mastering the spin can be done even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Years ago I worked at a large church that found itself in a scandal surrounding a staff member. The press was relentless, as they tend to be when a fall from grace happens in a church setting. Anticipating camera crews before services the following Sunday, I prepped and practiced key talking points: transparency is a virtue and so we are willing to discuss this on the record, accountability works as it did in bringing this issue to light, we are a people of forgiveness but consequences and a review of policy is critical when areas of weakness are revealed, and so forth. Did all of that mitigate all damage that arose out of that situation? Of course it didn't, but it helped us control what we could control in the rolling out of the story, and in the long run, minimized the reputational damage to the organization.
5. Follow Up with Your Followers
For better and for worse, social media is the first place of connection with the public. It is a great and massively useful tool in any marketing arsenal, but it also has its pitfalls. People comment, leave reviews, and share information about your organization with others. Hopefully it is all good stuff.
However, if you serve people, it's likely you've also ticked people off, and when that happens, it's likely they are telling others. When that feedback lands on your newsfeed, under your Google listing, or on other feedback platforms, don't go silent. Engage with your followers. Try to address any concerns. At the very least, search to see what kind of feedback is being left about you so that you aren't caught off guard if and when it comes up. You won't likely win back the opinion of that one person, but by issuing a gentle response you may put that one person's opinion into context and ease the impact of their feedback on your impression with others.
Intentional and unintentional publicity will happen. You have the power to harness that attention for good or leave it to its own (often destructive) vices. Choose to harness it for good by being thoughtful about how you interact with the public, how you engage with the press, and how you position your organization when it responds to controversy.
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