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public relations controversy

No News is Not Good News: Managing a Public Relations Controversy

January 23, 2018 - Content Marketing, Marketing - , ,
By: Meredith Rutland Bauer

Your company hasn’t been in the news for two years. Nothing is going wrong. Everything is steady—and then WHAM! You find yourself in the middle of a public relations controversy.

Your first inclination may be to run from reporters and your public relations team and hope everyone forgets about your mistake. But you should resist that urge.

Not all controversies will sink a company, and the attention a minor controversy brings could actually be good for boosting your company’s profile.

If your company never appears in any search results and is never on a consumer’s mind, you’ll never get business anyway. If you’re struggling, a minor controversy could actually help people remember you—but only if you respond well to the problem at hand.

By owning up to your mistake early and crafting a statement that reflects that stance, by responding promptly and professionally to reporters and your internal PR staff, and letting the PR staff do their job and get reporters your statement quickly, you’ll set yourself up on a better path. Everyone is human, and at the end of the day, reporters want to know what went wrong and what you’re going to do to fix the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some career-ending mistakes—for example, sexual assault, embezzlement, and other crimes will pretty much end you and your company.

Let’s look at a few examples of public relations issues that ended up boosting a business’s profile.

In 2007, an ice storm hit the East Coast, crippling JetBlue’s service for a week and cancelling 1,000 flights. Flyers were stranded in airports for days. Other airports had cancelled flights in anticipation of the storm, but JetBlue did not, the Wall Street Journal reported.

JetBlue CEO David Neeleman took the blame, saying he was “humiliated and mortified” that his customers were living out of airports. He offered financial compensation and wrote out a customer “bill of rights.” The CEO then went on talk shows in the weeks following to apologize to the public, rather than to try to justify his company’s actions. The company eventually recovered from the backlash and is still a leader in budget air travel.

Another more recent example is between two Microsoft third-party vendors, AvePoint and Metalogix. The two have been competitors for many years now, but on Jan. 17, 2018, their competitiveness was taken to a new level.

That day, AvePoint published a post, warning the market that Metalogix was for sale, implying that as a result, their products and services might be at risk.

This is a bold move by any company, and it raises a lot of questions about authenticity. Is there really a sale coming? What do they realistically think the outcome will be? Or is this just media manipulation? Then there was the response:

Metalogix responded within the same day—making it clear they are going nowhere, only that their products are changing.

We won’t have the answers to where this all came from, its validity, or whether there was any company collaboration for marketing purposes. But the “campaign” led to gossip, which meant more awareness for both companies and their offerings.

Because Metalogix responded promptly, clearly and politely, they still gained attention from this event while keeping control of the conversation. Because they took the high road, they were able to make the most of this public relations controversy.


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Meredith Rutland Bauer is a freelance technology and environmental reporter in the San Francisco East Bay. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Audubon, Fox News Tech, The Atlantic verticals and Vice Motherboard, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @merebauer