Stopping an accident becoming an incident

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How to deal with the press if something happens at your event

Publicity can be a wonderful thing. Publicity sells tickets. Publicity builds excitement. Publicity makes sure you have bums on seats.

But it can be a double-edged sword. If something goes wrong at your event, as we’ve seen in recent news with the eight children injured on the inflatable slide in Woking, the press that were hyping your event suddenly start stoking the flames of the fire.

Unfortunately, once the press gets hold of a story, it’s difficult to control how they tell it and to who. But it’s very easy to make a story worse.

In our latest blog, our Digital Communications and Social Media Manager, Sam, shares his expertise in negative PR and offers hints and tips on how to contain a story if something goes wrong at your event.

Sam’s thoughts:

I once worked for a FTSE 100 company who made a very bad business decision which affected lots of customers. A lot of people were angry and the company’s reputation took a hit. They then made things a lot worse with some pretty horrible PR and press management.

They shied away from the problem and would refuse to talk about it.

They were so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing again that they thought the best solution was to ignore that there was a problem at all.

Only, the problem was there. It did exist. And it wasn’t going away any time soon.

The company then made the bold decision to completely change their PR plan. They switched from a ‘we don’t know what you’re talking about’ stance to a ‘yes, we admit we made a mistake and we’re trying to fix it’ front. It may not have solved the problem, but it meant customers felt they were being listened to. The only thing worse than being wronged is being ignored.

I’ve told you this story as a warning, but also as a call to action. I implore you all to be brave when an incident happens. Do what you think is right, not what you think will cover your back.

Here are my top 5 tips on avoiding a PR disaster if something happens at your event:

  1. Be honest

The most important advice I can give is to be upfront and honest about what’s happened. I don’t mean you should start bragging about it, but you need to take ownership of the incident. Admit that it’s happened. Explain what you’re doing to make things ok. Speak to a legal professional and if it’s appropriate, admit fault. By doing this, you’re accelerating the conversation topic away from whose fault it was and on to what happens next.

  1. Be human

Lots of companies aren’t brave enough to be human when something goes wrong. They’re very happy to be cool and kooky when things are going well, but revert to corporate mode when trouble comes. In reality, it’s on occasions like this when the public need to know they’re talking to a business that feels empathy and regret. Because that’s the type of business that’s going to try hard to put things right.

I’ll give an example. When I was working for that FTSE 100 company, I remember two customers sending very similar angry messages on Facebook to our social media team. They went something along these lines:

‘Your business change has caused me hardship. This is not my fault but I’m the one suffering. You’re doing nothing to put things right. How do I make a formal complaint to the industry authority..’

Ok, it was a little more foul-mouthed than that, but you get the picture.

One of the less experienced members of staff responded to the first message. She replied with:

‘If you have any complaints, you should call this number xxxxxxxxxxx. You have xx amount of days to complain to the industry authority’.

In her reply, she has hidden from the fact the company had done anything wrong. She may have answered the customer’s question, but that wasn’t really what the customer wanted.

The second message received a reply from one of the more experienced staff members. Her reply read:

‘You’re absolutely right. We have made a mistake and we can’t apologise enough. But believe me, we’re working hard to put it right for every single customer. I’d love to help you today – have you got your customer number so I can look into your account’.

In that reply, she hasn’t actually answered the customer’s question, which seems like a bad move. But she’s got to the route of the customer’s message – ‘I’m angry and I need help’. She’s replied like a human and automatically disarmed the customer’s anger. It’s much harder to be angry at a person than it is at a faceless business.

The first customer did complain to the industry authority. The second ended up apologising for sounding angry in the original message and thanked the social media team member for her help.

Amazing what a more human approach can do.

  1. Build a relationship with ONE journalist

For journalists, it’s all about the ‘exclusive’; having a story that no one else has. When a journalist believes a story has already been done, or someone has a better scoop, they tend to leave it alone.

By building a relationship with one journalist, you’re essentially giving them the exclusive. You might end up giving them more information than you’d like, but you’re also hopefully limiting the number of places the story might land. That gives you greater control of the slant the incident is given.

  1. Press contact: early and heavy

As soon as you know the full details of the incident, get in touch with your journalist contact and give them as much detail as possible.

The old adage about today’s news being tomorrow’s fish wrapping is absolutely true. The only exception is when more information is constantly drip-fed to journalists who can keep the story alive with different slants.

If you can get all the cards on the table early, you can make the story go away sooner.

  1. Write your own story

As someone who studied journalism for a degree, and went on to work as a freelance journalist for the early part of my career, I can tell you one thing about my old colleagues: they’re lazy.

They will do anything to avoid having to sit for ages and write a story. They much prefer receiving well written and well-formatted press releases. It saves them lots of time and effort.

By sending out a press release, you’re saving the journalist time and you’re telling the story your way. They may edit it, but they’re not going to bother rewriting it, that’s for sure.

If you’d like to discuss Sam’s thoughts in any more detail, or you’d like his advice on a real-life PR situation, contact us today.

You should also contact us right away if you’d like properly tailored insurance cover to protect you financially in the event of something going wrong at your event. PR is important, but it means nothing if you can’t continue to trade because of loss of earnings.

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