Best Practices for Making Bad Publicity Better

True or false: There is no such thing as bad publicity.

If you said “true”, you are likely of the mindset that as long as someone is talking about you or your company, it’s an indication you are relevant and you’re pleased that your brand is being reinforced in the market. If you are a Kardashian, you’re probably a lover of all publicity.

If you said “false”, you might be thinking about how leaders in the Catholic church are feeling in light of the most recent sexual abuse allegations. Or perhaps you are recalling last year’s publicity disaster involving United Airlines and the older passenger who was dragged off the plane. Both these organizations probably wish certain stories would just go away.

If you’re unsure how to answer the above question – well, you aren’t alone.

Recently a client asked us how to respond to an article that included some critical remarks about the company’s primary product. The writer offered far more praise than criticism, but the client was still upset by the negative comments. The client wanted to know if we thought they should write a rebuttal or if it would be best to simply ignore the comments and hope that the market would overlook the story – or at least quickly forgot the negative statements.

As we shared with our client, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing negative press. However, in the event your organization or products are profiled in a less-than-favorable light, here are a few best practices to consider.

Remove the emotions. It’s human nature to be defensive and even feel hurt by critical words. However, when criticism is hurled in your direction, it’s best to start off taking a deep breath instead of immediately lashing back.

Assess the criticism. Once your emotions are in check, review the critic’s words and decide if there is any validity to the critiques. If the comments carry some truth, be honest and acknowledge what is true. If the critic is off-base, you must decide whether or not a response is warranted.

Respond or ignore. Regardless of the validity of the negative comments, sometimes it’s best to remain silent and ignore certain issues, rather than fuel the fire and make more people aware of the criticism.  If the negative comments end up going viral, however, consider preparing a thoughtful, factual and unemotional response.

Respond quickly. If you choose to formally address the issue, do so quickly, lest you appear indifferent to the matter or accepting of the criticism (even if you believe the criticism is not valid.)

Own up and be polite. Manners matter, so begin by thanking your critics for taking the time and effort to share their thoughts and for providing feedback that might be helpful in the future. Don’t attack the critic, even if the critic failed to express his criticisms in eloquent or tactful terms. Own up to any valid criticisms and clarify any steps you intend to take to address the concerns that were raised.

Clarify your position. If your critic is not on point with all the facts, explain your position truthfully and succinctly without attacking the critic. This can also be an excellent opportunity to highlight your company’s unique value proposition, so weave in details that emphasize what makes the organization and its products special. Your ultimate objective should to boost your audience’s image of your company and products.

Pivot the storyline. Whether or not you publicly respond to negative comments, now is the time to change the storyline and seek opportunities for positive press. Proactively secure media interviews for company leaders, allowing them to comment on current industry trends – which could simultaneously boost their credibility and the company’s reputation. Consider publishing articles bylined by company executives on topics that highlight their industry knowledge and innovative thinking, and align their positions with the organization’s overall values and mission.

Most companies will face bad publicity at one time or another. If your organization is hit with unwanted negativity, take time to process any hurt or upset feelings and then start planning your strategy to minimize any damage. If you require outside resources for advice or to provide additional band-width, consider partnering with a PR firm that has crisis management experience.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about” – which, in my opinion, sounds more clever than accurate. Bad publicity CAN be bad. However, if you appropriately respond to bad publicity, it’s quite possible to minimize the bad – and even transform the bad into good publicity.

What An Older, More Mature Lebron James Can Teach Us About Crisis Communications

What An Older, More Mature Lebron James Can Teach Us About Crisis Communications

In most cities, a sports star leaving to join another team wouldn’t quite reach the level of crisis. No doubt, the world has countless far more serious and urgent problems.

But Cleveland’s a little different than most cities. Egos are a bit more fragile here after decades of job loss, population decline, environmental damage, and not to mention sports ineptitude –  or so it seems to this (humble) outsider who first moved to Cleveland about a decade ago.

So after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ drubbing yet again at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in June, coupled with LeBron James’ impending free agency, thing were looking pretty bad for Cleveland. Despite hailing from nearby Akron and enjoying close ties with the local community, LeBron looked likely to depart Cleveland for a sexier, more glamourous destination, leaving the locals he left in his wake feeling abandoned and forgotten.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. But to LeBron’s credit, he learned from a past mistake, and let Cleveland fans down a little easier this time, while simultaneously providing a lesson on crisis communications.

We’ve seen this movie before
The date of “The Decision” by James – July 8, 2010 – is one that lives in Cleveland sports infamy. On that night, the then-25-year-old who is perhaps the greatest sports star the city has ever known crushed his hometown fans by announcing on live TV his intention to “take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” Next came the reaction. A city mourned, jerseys were burned, insults were hurled, and one melodramatic fan called it “the worst day of my life.”

Later that night, Cavaliers Owner Dan Gilbert hastily published a scathing open letter notoriously printed in comic sans font excoriating James for a “several-day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special.” Illustrating that Gilbert’s PR team had ready access to a thesaurus, the irate owner peppered his letter with several enjoyable descriptions of James and his decision, including “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness,” “shocking act of disloyalty,” and “heartless and callous action.”

To be clear, the majority of Cleveland fans weren’t angry at James for signing with Miami; they were upset by the “needless pain” he inflicted on the city for the spectacle of “The Decision,” which I recall one commentator comparing to a newly minted millionaire going on national tv to tell his high-school sweetheart he’s dumping her to move in with a supermodel.

Indeed, players change teams all the time (LeBron has now done it three times) “but no player has ever done it with the pomp, phoniness, pseudo-humility, and rehearsed innocence” as James, as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist correctly observed. That’s what understandably perturbed Cleveland fans, and later provided James with an opportunity to show growth in his style of public communication.

A second chance
After James spent four seasons in Miami and won two championships while making the NBA Finals every year, in 2014 he did what was once unthinkable. He mended fences (kind of) with Gilbert, rejoined the Cavs and led the city to its first major professional sports championship since 1964.

Then James broke Cleveland’s heart all over again. On July 1, 2018, the now-33-year-old James announced he was leaving the Cavaliers once more, having signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But this time it was different – no self-serving, nationally televised special; no week-long buildup of drama and, thankfully, no jersey burnings or lamentations about the worst day of fans’ lives. James and his advisors simply delivered the news in 36-word press release:

LeBron James, four time NBA MVP, three time NBA finals MVP, fourteen time NBA All Star, and two time Olympic gold medalist has agreed to a four year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.

While unnecessarily trumpeting his major accomplishments on the court isn’t the height of modesty, James deserves credit for learning from his mistakes and rolling out his latest “decision” in a far more muted, low-key fashion.

And that brings us to what we can learn from James in crisis communications: Be brief, take responsibility, get to the point and don’t sugarcoat things.

While this is a lesson that apparently took James eight years to learn, healthcare organizations can learn from his mistakes by never committing them in the first place.

And it’s probably best to avoid ever proclaiming that you’re taking your talents anywhere.

Crisis planning can east tensions during actual events

Crisis planning can ease tensions during actual events

A week doesn’t go by without news of a hospital or health system affected by a cyberattack or some other crisis.  Coupled with an always-on news cycle and social media ecosystem, a crisis can destroy reputations.  While the incidents themselves aren’t always preventable, organizations that thoughtfully do some advance crisis planning can emerge with their brands intact.

The ability to respond promptly to disasters or damaging reports can build confidence in constituents that the organization is on top of the crisis and a leader in its sector.

One thing to consider is that crisis plans should make very clear who is responsible for what.  Here are several recommendations for consideration to help your organization keep pace:

  1. Prepare in advance with inputs from the organization’s functional areas. The time to plan for a crisis is long before it hits. A well thought-out crisis plan is designed to help an organization communicate internally and externally with clear, succinct and timely direction. The goal is to minimize confusion and maintain confidence whatever crisis may occur.
  2. Identify stakeholders. Designing an effective crisis management plan also requires an understanding of stakeholders and their roles. Stakeholders are all those who have an interest in the outcome. For a health system, the list is generally long and can include patients, governments, administrators, board members, clinicians. Each might need slightly different things during a crisis, and they should all be considered as separate audiences.
  3. Identify a communications chain of command. Crisis plans should – in advance – identify all of those who will be involved with managing a crisis, what areas they are responsible for and who is ultimately responsible for making decisions. Then, all of those involved should receive the training they need to be effective in their roles. For example, specialists from all functional areas of the organization should be available to lend their expertise should the need arise, and executive spokespeople should receive media training.
  4. Create real-world tools that can be modified later. One of the most valuable things to have in a crisis is a head start. Messaging, scripts and spokespeople should be prepared in advance. The communications team can later assist in adapting standard scripts to specific situations the organization encounters.
  5. Ensure that crisis management messaging addresses various aspects of the crisis. When communicating bad news or another type of crisis, it is imperative that the organization’s spokespersons do the following:
    • Elaborate with the “what” – explain what happened with concise language, together with the organization’s position on the issue
    • Educate with the “how” – explain how audiences should respond to the situation and how the organization is responding
    • Engage with the “why” – explain the impact the situation has on operations so that impacts are not blown out of proportion

By giving thoughtful consideration to the development of a crisis management plan, organizations are more likely to be able to recover from bad news. In some cases, they might even exit the crisis with stronger brand relationships.

When a social media crisis strikes, what do you do?

Imagine this: after weeks of planning then pouring time and resources into your social media efforts you are starting to see results. You are gaining new followers and engaging with potential customers. Your efforts are clearly working and just when everything seems like sunshine and rainbows, there it is, loud and proud hate mail plastered on your front page and quickly gaining likes, shares and similarly-frustrated commenters. What do you do?

Take a deep breath.

Let’s face it, no one is lining up for their chance to deal with negative comments on social media. But, with the right plan of action in hand, dealing with these problems doesn’t have to be scary. It can be a great opportunity to learn more about your customers and engage with them at a critical point in the buyer’s journey.

When something negative about your company starts gaining traction you need to determine if it is a crisis that needs attention from more people or if it is a small problem that can be solved. If there is something negative about your company that is well-known and commonly addressed, it’s probably not a crisis. There is likely already a protocol for how to deal with this type of regular negativity within your PR or sales department. However, if there is something new about your product or company stirring up serious attention on social media it might be time to dive in and handle the crisis!

Phone a friend

If you are managing the social account or if you are personally invested in the subject of the negativity it’s a good idea to ask a colleague or your agency for some advice. Being removed from the situation helps when looking for the right approach to take.

Not everyone has the same sense of humor. It’s good to run your response by someone else to make sure your response won’t be taken the wrong way. While sometimes taking the low road may work in your favor, such as the social media sass-master at Wendy’s, it’s usually best to take the high road and be polite.

Avoid sounding defensive

Whenever something negative happens on social media it is easy to take it personally. Your first reaction will be to react in a defensive manner. Let’s say someone commented on your company site saying that you never provide xyz, when in fact you do. Well, of course you want tell the commenter they are wrong! However, that’s not going to get you many brownie points from your audience. What goes online stays online and can spiral quickly.

It’s like sending a snarky email to a coworker and then seeing they forwarded the email to a large group. *Insert big gulp* Remember that whatever you put out there can be interpreted and then shared in a way you didn’t originally intend.

Never reply to online reviews defensively and two years later like the screenshots above. As cringe-worthy as these comments are, it’s easy to go into defensive mode without a plan in place.

Let’s say one customer leaves a nasty review about your company or product. Then customer 2 comes along and reads the review. If you respond to customer 1 with compassion and show a willingness to listen to their feedback or fix the problem, you can turn that review into something positive for customer 2 to see. Instead of winding up on a blog post about what not to do when responding to negative reviews. 

Take swift action

Negative comments and mentions on social media need to be handled in a timely manner and with care, just like a positive comment. Whenever possible, get ahead of the problem and address it before there is a chance for the comment to gain momentum.

When possible be proactive in avoiding potentially offensive or misinterpreted posts. When a national crisis or traumatic event happens hit pause on your social queue. Review posts before unfortunate timing can make your company seem obtuse.

Fix the problem

Do your best to fix the problem at hand when you have the opportunity. Don’t make any promises unless you know you can follow through. Show everyone that you are a company that listens to customers’ needs. After all they are the ones using your product or service. Most angry comments and reviews online stem from a need to be heard.

Fix the problem without escalating the frustration of the user when possible. Asking for more information and show a willingness to work through the problem if necessary. Offer to take the conversation to private message or offline. 

Admit when you’re wrong

Mistakes will happen. Own up to them and diffuse the situation quickly. It’s better to admit you are wrong compared to letting someone else point out your flaws. Addressing the problem immediately shows your company is actively searching for a solution and aware when things go wrong. You may even be rewarded for your honesty.


Has a social media crisis ever happened to you? Comment with your story or questions!




What Can We Learn From United Airlines Flight 3411

If you had a goal of demonstrating how NOT to handle crisis communications, you couldn’t find a better template than the actions of United Airlines after a flight crew forcibly removed Dr. David Dao from Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville to accommodate its own need to get four of its employees to Louisville for another flight. It’s definitely cost the airline a lot of goodwill (something most airlines have in short supply already) and could end up costing them hard dollars as passengers stay away from United for a while, either out of protest or fear the same fate could befall them.

In this guest post, James Foster, Director of Marketing and Sales Operations at Amendola Communications client ePatientFinder, looks at what happened, the fallout that’s occurred so far, and what United should have done instead – the real template for handling a crisis. You can read the original post, along with other great ePatientFinder content, here.  

In looking at the fiasco that is unraveling for United Airlines, I am reminded of the Stanford Study done back in 2005 that still holds a lot of weight. United would do well to remember the lessons learned, given that, as of this writing, the stock prices are down 4%.

Stanford Graduate School of Business associate professor Larissa Tiedens and her associates studied businesses from 1975 through 1995 and looked at companies that took responsibility for a bad year [or event] and showed they realized better stock performance than firms that blamed external uncontrollable factors. “Only explanations for negative events mattered, but those explanations mattered a lot,” says Tiedens.
Tiedens continues, “Executives who blame external, uncontrollable causes for problems may seem less trustworthy. ”

What does United CEO Oscar Munoz do in the case of #uniteddragspassengergateofftheplane ? He doubles down and blames the victim, calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” He then “blamed” the process and the policy by saying “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”

This is blaming everything but yourself and your company and not really accepting the ownness of the fault, even if the passenger had acted like a jackwagon (do you blame him for over-reacting? [It appears the passenger has had some issues and was previously a doctor but that does not excuse the treatment he received]).

Passengers that talked about the victim show that he was calm and not abusive.

“He was very polite, matter-of-fact,” Powell said. “I could hear pretty clearly. He was acting appropriately annoyed. I was 100% with him — I wouldn’t have gotten off the plane either.”

Removal after Boarding
United did what it called “involuntary denial of the boarding process.” Here is the problem, the passengers were already boarded, seated in their plane, and ready to go. Anyway you try to justify it, if words matter, then how do you deny boarding after boarding has already occurred?

Hindsight is 20/20, but is having another flight delayed worse than the PR nightmare that they are dealing with currently? Passengers are used to having canceled flights— even last week Delta and Southwest experienced canceled flights, but that’s not what people are talking about today. The narrative today is that passengers would rather have a flight canceled then get a beat down by United. That paints a pretty bad picture.Poor crisis communications can give competitors an advantage

What to do?
The prevailing opinion about “what to do” during a crisis is undoubtedly that the company should own up to what happened and be transparent about the entire situation—at least that’s what most customers would tell you. So I’ve compiled a learning list of what to do or what not to do:

  1. Own up to the mistake, and ignore the lawyers (as shown above, defuse it through transparency). If you’re going to get sued, being more transparent and open will weigh into what happens, and usually for the better.
  2. Make things right for the passenger, I mean really right. He took a beating; you owe him for the public embarrassment. I’d go farther and make things right for the other people on the flight subjected to the incident. It may not stop you from getting sued, but it will certainly help your public image.
  3. Admit that your process and policy are flawed, change it, and after the incident subsides, invite the public to participate in the solution if applicable. This is an opportunity to improve and come out the situation stronger for it.
  4. Control the conversation. Right now United has lost total control: On Tuesday, the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, with users suggesting slogans such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating.”
  5. Don’t release app updates during PR nightmares. Wow… really: Drag and drop feature?

Clearly, this situation spiraled out of control. Even the security officers have been suspended – because in a time when the public has a massive distrust of the TSA, and airline security over-zealousness, they do exactly what we expect them to do, and over-react. This situation is evolving… or really, devolving, on a minute-by-minute basis— so only time will tell how United pulls itself out of this PR hole it keeps digging deeper.

[Editorial note: Oscar Munoz has issued a 2nd apology and taken more of the blame. How much damage has been done, again, only time will tell.]

Reputation is Everything: How 2 Hospitals are Weathering PR Firestorms

Our own Marcia Rhodes was quoted in the article below, which was originally published on


Although more than 1,000 miles apart, both Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and Jackson Health System in Miami have had an onslaught of bad press recently. One involves criminal sexual abuse allegations, the other a drunken tirade against an Uber driver caught on a video that was posted to YouTube and quickly went viral. As of last week, the video now had close to 6 million views.

Dr. David Newman, an emergency room physician at Mount Sinai, turned himself over to the police after a woman claimed he drugged, groped her and then performed a lewd act when she went to the ER for shoulder pain on January 12.

Newman, 45, has served in Iraq, taught at medical schools, and is an author of a book called “Hippocrates Shadow” about the doctor-patient relationship as well as The New York Times articles. A few days after the woman contacted the police about the alleged incident, the New York Daily News reported the police and the Manhattan district attorney’s office were investigating the case.

Mount Sinai issued the following statement to The Daily News: “We are aware of an allegation that has been made against one of our physicians. This is a matter under investigation and we are fully cooperating with the appropriate authorities. We take this matter very seriously and are conducting our own internal investigation.”

Marcia Rhodes, regional managing director at Amendola Communications, a marketing firm specializing in healthcare and healthcare IT, told Healthcare Dive, “Mount Sinai did the right thing by responding to the press the same day the incident came to light and keeping the lines of communication open.”

After the news broke, another women reportedly came forward and told police she went to Mount Sinai’s ER in September 2015 and was also groped by Dr. Newman. When Dr. Newman was arrested on January 19, hospital officials told The New York Times he had been suspended.

When Healthcare Dive inquired about the status of Dr. Newman earlier this week, Kathleen Robinson, senior media director at Mount Sinai, sent this statement via email:

“The physician has been suspended from Mount Sinai pending the outcome of the investigation, and we continue to cooperate fully with the appropriate authorities. He has not provided care to patients at Mount Sinai since the investigation began. We take the nature of these allegations very seriously and continue to conduct our own extensive internal inquiry. The health and safety of our patients are our primary concern. Since this is a police matter, we cannot provide further details.”

Reputation is Everything

Fraser Seitel, an adjunct professor of public relations at NYU and a partner at Rivkin & Associates, a management and consulting firm that specializes in crisis counseling for healthcare institutions, agreed with Rhodes and added the hospital is “doing the right thing” by suspending Dr. Newman.

“They have a well-respected doctor who’s been charged with violating the [Hippocratic] oath he took to prevent harm,” Seitel said. “If he is found by Mount Sinai’s investigation, not to mention by the courts, to be guilty, then the institution has to discharge him. The reason why is because the reputation of the organization transcends the individual.”

In fact, a hospital’s reputation may be its most important attribute. A report by the National Research Corporation found 60% of consumers said a hospital’s reputation is “very important” when considering it for future needs.

Hospitals are more vulnerable than other organizations to public relations challenges because of the nature of treating patients on a daily basis. “As these [recent] incidents show, character and proper conduct are often as important to patients as technical medical skill,” Tina Cassidy, executive vice president and chief content officer at InkHouse Public Relations, told Healthcare Dive. Also, physicians are held to a much higher moral standard because they took the Hippocratic Oath, Rhodes explained, so when they harm another person, it’s viewed as a more serious crime.

Trouble in Miami

Dr. Anjali Ramkissoon, a fourth-year neurology resident at Jackson Health System in Miami, whose Jan. 17 drunken tirade against an Uber driver was captured on a video that went viral, also has been suspended. The driver did not press charges.

The hospital issued a statement, which said Ramkissoon had been “placed on administrative leave, effective immediately, and removed from all clinical duties.” The hospital is conducting an internal investigation, and the outcome will determine if any disciplinary action will occur, including termination, according to the statement.

Although damaging to the hospital’s reputation, Seitel described the event as a “painful incident” but added, “it had nothing to do with her practice as a physician,” unlike the Mount Sinai situation. He suggested that she go public immediately and win empathy by admitting her mistake.

Ramkissoon did appear on Good Morning America, albeit a week after the incident, and apologized for her actions. But Cassidy said she thought the hospital could have helped her manage PR after the fact.

The Miami Herald reported Dr. Ramkissoon said she has not been contacted by the hospital and was hiring a lawyer and a public relations firm.

Hospitals can not ignore social media

The power of social media cannot be ignored. The Pew Research Center reported in 2013 more than 60% of people younger than age 40 get their news from social networks.

Hospitals need to keep this in mind when handling times of bad press. “Social media has become a major challenge for hospitals and can be exacerbated during times of crisis,” Rhodes explained. Since hospitals have to be HIPAA compliant with information they share with the press, they can be misperceived as holding back information, she added. “HIPAA and social media are a dangerous combination, which explains why Career Cast has listed PR executives as the 6th most stressful job in the U.S.”

“It’s always a challenge for hospitals to balance privacy with transparency,” Seitel stated. It’s important for hospitals to use a “common sense approach” even if involved in litigation and “do what’s in the best interest of the institution.”

Cassidy agreed hospitals always need to protect their patients first, “which then leads to protecting their reputation – without which their business and mission will suffer. While they also have a duty to their doctors, outside forces will always reveal any perceived wrongdoing – and hospitals need to be ready for that.”

Do hospitals need a plan?

The PR experts Healthcare Dive interviewed said hospitals are so vulnerable to a wide variety of potential public relations crises that a communication plan is essential.

However, Seitel said hospitals can’t prepare for all types of incidents and should instead have a “philosophy of transparency and disclosure that service well in these type of cases.” There are many stakeholders involved in hospitals, so without a plan, it would be difficult for hospitals to “think through what to do in these situations,” Cassidy said.

The main components of a crisis communication plan, according to Rhodes, include a:

  • List of the crisis team members (legal, operations, and PR counsel); and
  • Process for determining what types of events need to be escalated to the crisis team and how to best handle five crisis scenarios.

Most crises are predictable, so they should be planned for in advance, she noted. “PR agencies can help with risk assessment: We start by identifying the five crises that are most likely to occur and be most potentially damaging to one’s reputation, and help our client with a well thought-out, proactive plan involving all stakeholders.”

It remains to be seen how the two hospitals will resolve the recent PR storms.

“Their biggest challenge is the court of public opinion,” Cassidy remarked on the hospitals’ situations.

“You try to do the right thing. That’s the mantra of the PR counselor,” Seitel concluded. “You try to get the client to do the right thing, depending on the situation. That’s another reason why it’s difficult to plan for every situation, each one is different.”