Off the Media

How to Respond (And Not Respond) to Bad PR

First lesson: Plenty of criticism is mostly trolling.

 How to Respond (And Not Respond) to Bad PRBeing criticized in the media is a good problem to have–most of the time. It means you’re doing something that is at least interesting or cool or crazy enough to be noticed. It might not always feel good, but it’s usually better than the alternative of obscurity.

Unfortunately, most people have no idea how to handle this when it happens.

As someone who has represented many controversial clients, been the subject of media scrutiny myself and more recently, written my own criticism, I thought we could talk about some simple lessons of what to do, and more importantly, what not do.

This is not coming out of thin air, either. Last week I wrote a column critical of the well-meaning but clearly manipulative social news site, Upworthy.com. Shortly afterwards, the cofounder was wildly tweeting at me, its editor-at-large commented twice in the comments section and the next morning their PR-rep initiated a bizarre series of email exchanges with me. While it wasn’t the worst response I’ve seen to unwanted media attention, it was pretty ridiculous.

The most important general rule is this: Unless you have very clear goals and a message you must get out–or if the allegation is something truly serious–the best response is probably nothing. By “nothing,” I mean ignore it–pretend that the Google Alert never came in. A significant portion of all criticism (especially online) is just trolling. It depends on and desires your participation. Opt out and you’ve robbed it of the oxygen it needs.

But let’s say you must respond. Perhaps someone accused you of something that, if not thoroughly debunked, has the chance to haunt you going forward. Perhaps your business is really starved for attention and you want to use this as a springboard. If you are to respond, remember this simple rule: The response must be more interesting than the initial salvo. A denial rarely suffices–instead you must provide a compelling counter narrative or story for the media to grasp onto.

Take the Upworthy story. My argument was that their site intentionally filters out the negative parts of reality and gives us an artificially positive world–not based on ideology but on what will get Facebook likes. Their response? Essentially, “No, we also talk about negative stuff too.”

What do they intend for me–or anyone–to do with this information? I write a column once or twice a month; I am not going to immediately write another because they had a minor quibble (which also happens to be delusional and misses the point).

I get it–the piddly details are important to you because this company or book or project is your life’s work. No one wants to be described as “thickset” when they’re actually “muscular.”

But you have to understand, bloggers paid per pageview (ed note: Mr. Holiday is not compensated this way) do not care about small details and they do not care about your feelings. Their job is to write articles that get traffic. That is often at odds with presenting 100% accurate truths. It sucks, I hate it, but that’s the reality. So if someone writes something about you that is negative but mostly true, I’m sorry but you’re sort of out of luck. If you want a follow-up, you’re going to need to present an alternative route for the writer because they are usually not interested in treading on old ground.

Before you think about responding, you better do your fucking research about the reporter or blogger. I curse here so you’ll get it. People read my opinion columns here at Betabeat and get upset that my opinion doesn’t adhere to their marketing materials. Or in Upworthy’s case, their PR rep tried to nudge me toward softening the story or writing a follow up by dangling some future “exclusives” in front of me. I don’t break stories or do reporting, so that offer is not only a waste of time, it’s upsetting.

It should go without saying that you need to be following the media that covers your space. Learn which ones are fastidious, which ones are jerks, which ones are scandalmongers. I remember when I wrote my column criticizing blackhat brand infiltration of Reddit, Reddit got extremely upset–but they were forgetting that I was a fan of their site. A calmer reaction would have produced better results. Conversely, if a particular blogger happens to hate your company and always has, you’re going to look like an idiot firing off an email asking for pity. Every media appearance is a learning experience about the media outlet and their journalists and their feelings about you, so treat it as such.

Whatever you decide to say, say it quickly. This is especially tough to pull off in big, bureaucratic companies and so the media exploits that weakness (Ever see a story include, “So and so did not immediately respond to request for comment”?). Your best chance to influence a story happens before it’s fully written–which means a decent comment prior to publication is preferable to a perfect one that comes in after their deadline. But particularly evil bloggers will try to get you by sending in their request like two seconds before publishing or in the middle of the night.

If you miss this window, fixing things is going to be tougher. Send your official statement anyway but again, remember that ideally it should be more interesting than the original story. Better yet, find a rival site and give them your comment. Now you can use that competition to your advantage–they’ll spin the story differently (ideally your way) if only to put their own stamp on it.

I’ll end with a controversial piece of advice. I’m saying this as a realist who has been on both sides of this move. Someone accused you of something or some story broke some news you’re not ready to let see the light of day? Just lie. Or blow it off. It happens every day. Every single day. Celebrities deny splits they later confirm. Companies disavow merger or acquisition talks they’re in the middle of. Politicians respond to allegations with nonsensical rambling that never addresses the charges in front of them.

I recently wrote a criticism of the New Yorker here on Betabeat for using a service called Outbrain and they got all upset and emailed my editors with a big convoluted explanation that we felt was easier to address with a retraction. Of course, I was right–I had email confirmation from the vendor and also the code is visible right there on the site to this day.

They were just lying. It works. Think of Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, and Rod Blagojevich. Not as role models, obviously, but as proof that even obviously guilty people can sit across from an interviewer and say with a straight face the complete opposite of the objective facts…and directly reach the public with it. (Many of whom believe it.)

If you need to fudge the facts a little bit to make your narrative work, there is nothing anyone can do to stop you. In a world where reporters are doing the exact same thing to hit their pageview quotas, some might argue that you’re more than justified in fighting fire with fire. If the media is a farce, why should you be the only one stuck with rules and restrictions?

No one likes finding themselves in the media cross hairs. It’s not fun (well, the last tip I just mentioned can actually be quite fun). But it is manageable. The rookie mistakes above are avoidable.

Just remember this: the cliche “all press is good press” is a cliche because it is true. In six months, no one will remember particulars of a news story you’re freaking out about right now–it probably won’t even make it on Wikipedia. Unless you make it worse by overreacting, saying something stupid or pissing the journalist off even more.

They’ll just remember you were in the news. And again, that’s usually better than not being in the news.

Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and Growth Hacker Marketing and is an adviser to many brands and authors.