“Yeah, Well, You Know, That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man.” *
The American news media has always been about recording, contextualizing and transmitting opinions to readers, listeners and viewers. It’s nothing new. The thirst for opinion is so real, that many organizations stress to their spokespeople to “just stick to the facts” when giving interviews. Just peruse this list of commonly asked questions by journalists, and you’ll see what I mean.
Even for straight news, a typical piece consists of someone giving the facts (e.g., whoever “owns” what is happening), someone talking about the ramifications of what is happening (e.g., a regulator or official) and one or more people expressing what the thing that is happening means to them. Reporters want to know if people are angry, happy, sad, frustrated, satisfied or shocked by any particular news situation.
People who appear in news stories might not like you or your organization, and what you’re doing, and they’ll say so. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. When people are misinformed about you or your organization, and are opinionated in the news, it can be frustrating. Worse yet, when newspaper columnists, news channel talking heads or talk radio hosts go on the offensive against you (in a bad or unfair way), it’s downright maddening.
Rearranging newsroom into desks for Hot Takes, Sick Burns, Thrown Shade
— Tim Annett (@annett_tim) April 30, 2015
Paul and I talked to some clients not too long ago who were in one of these situations. They told us, “There’s a bunch of people out there that don’t like us and are saying bad things about us! How do we make them stop?!” First off, you can’t make someone stop saying bad things about you (libel or slander aside), and secondly, it’s a good idea to find out exactly why someone has a bad opinion of you before you try to turn those frowns upside down.
Here’s my list of reasons why people are going to say bad things about you in (any kind of) media, and a few possible solutions:
1. You’ve Made a Mistake
There are mistakes that you can’t prevent and those you can. If you’ve had an industrial accident, even after all appropriate safety protocols were adhered to, that’s one thing. If a similar accident occurs and safety wasn’t a priority, then that’s something entirely different. If you’re in the first camp, you need to communicate that you were running a tight ship and are investigating how the accident could have happened, and what prevention measures you’ll be taking for the future. If you’re in the second camp, you need to tell the truth, somehow. Most organizations will be filtering anything they say through legal counsel at this point, though, which is sad because public opinion doesn’t have a law degree.
2. You Have a History of Making Mistakes
When I’ve mentored up-and-coming leaders on how to complete periodical employee reviews, we always get to the icky part: how best to handle negative marks on a review. I realized long ago that – as long as you’re up-front with an employee and are clear about expectations – negative marks are earned, just like positive marks. Same thing goes for personal or corporate reputation, good or bad. If your organization continues to have incidents, you might have an operational problem; if it’s just a perception, you haven’t been effectively communicating what it is you do. There’s a theory of “maintenance” communication that many may overlook – you have to keep communication channels open at all times, not just when you’re touting a really great achievement or responding to a crisis.
3. You’re in the Midst of Crisis and You’re Doing Things to Make it Worse
In the incident response world, we sometimes call this an “incident within an incident.” If you’re in the middle of – oh, I don’t know, let’s say a disaster that is affecting thousands of people – you don’t want to do things like downplay what’s happening, have a CEO complain about needing to “get his life back” because of all the hard work or cut corners while mitigating what has happened. Drop the “how do we get out of this” mentality and replace it with a “how do we fix this” mentality. Then tell people how you’re trying to make better whatever it is that went wrong.
4. You Have a Perception Problem
There are 7 billion people in this world: there are special interest groups for and against things that we’ve never even heard of (that’s your cue to put the weirdest ones you’ve heard of in the comments section below). If you’re engaged in some activity that seems inherently risky to enough people, they’re going to say bad things about you. If the benefits of what you do outweigh the risks, you need to educate people about this; if not, stop what you’re doing immediately – it’s probably illegal.
5. Matters of Taste
This typically wouldn’t apply during a crisis, but during you routine operations. One argument that people have against wind farms, for example, is simply about aesthetics – they don’t like they way they look. That can also tie into NIMBY issues (Not In My Back Yard); people might be “for” something, as long as they don’t have to suffer the direct consequences (noise, dust, etc.). Hard to win people over in these cases. De gustibus non est disputandum – in matters of taste, there can be no disputes. Acknowledge concerns and let people know what you’ve done to minimize the issue. Example: I live near several marine container terminals. You know, they have those HUGE cranes, which some people probably don’t want to see when they’re watching the sunset, etc. One of the terminals has all their cranes painted sky blue, which I’m sure is an attempt to camouflage them.
6. Someone is Just One of the Many Types of Jerks that Exist
Dear Cleveland: I love you. It says so right there in the Globe today. Always have. Folks are great and city deserves overdue championship.
— Dan Shaughnessy (@Dan_Shaughnessy) April 21, 2015
These are our wildcards, and they are legion. People being interviewed, or within the media (or, social media), who just have an ax to grind, and it’s hard to figure out why. When it’s a media member, this is especially frustrating, and people can feel helpless in how to effectively respond. Last week a Boston sports columnist wrote a bizarre article about the city of Cleveland (the respective cities’ basketball teams were in the midst of a playoff series of games). He got a reaction from citizens and officials, and was surprised by it (interesting that a professional newspaper columnist doesn’t understand that words matter). He had engaged in ad hominem attacks on the city for no discernible reason. Selling papers? Getting news site clicks? Weird guy. Pulled the newbie military member move of, “Hey, if I say ‘With all due respect’ to a superior, I can say whatever I want after that, right? Right?!” Long story short, he was trolling an entire city. What’s the communication counter-tactic for this (or any other kind of jerk)? Don’t feed the trolls! These people are usually so far deep down their respective logical fallacy rabbit hole that there’s no way to change their mind, except for what I wrote at the very beginning of this piece – stick to the facts. It won’t stop jerks from saying bad things about you or your organization, but you’ll be the voice of reason to the media member assembling the news piece.
Here are a few more tips that apply to these categories of “people saying bad things about you that you want to stop saying bad things about you”:
- Understand the elements of mass appeal. Media members need one or more of these things to be present for a story to become a story. Opinions play a big part. The more of these elements that are present, the better (for whomever is putting together the story).
- Stick to the facts when you’re in crisis.
- Stay on message.
- When replying to negatives, never repeat the negative in your message. Use positive, consensus-building language instead.
* My favorite single line from The Big Lebowski. An appropriate response to so much in our world today 🙂