The Press, November 2006

The toughest job in public relations (PR) at the moment would have to be promotions manager for the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has been creating havoc with the country's image with his wildly popular Borat movie. Not many of us face Borat sized problems with the media but what should we do when things turn bad?

'Borat' has raised the ire of Kazakhstan with his film and associated promotional activity. "We reserve the right to any legal action to prevent new pranks. We view Mr. Cohen's behaviour . . . as utterly unacceptable, a concoction of bad taste and ill manners which is completely incompatible with ethics and civilized behaviour." Yerzhan Ashykbayev, Kazakh Foreign Ministry Spokesman was quoted as saying.

That fell right into Cohen's trap of course, with him replying brilliantly as Borat "In response to Mr. Ashykbayev's comments, I'd like to state I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my government's decision to sue this Jew.... Kazakhstan is as civilized as any other country in the world. Women can now travel on inside of bus, homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats, and age of consent has been raised to 8 years old. We have incredible natural resources, hardworking labor, and some of the cleanest prostitutes in whole of Central Asia."

The power and ubiquity of modern media carries stories like this around the world in seconds, quickly wrecking havoc with the reputations of individuals, companies or in this case, countries.

US company Enron is probably the definitive PR disaster story from the business world. From being a darling of the world media, they fell quickly when their widespread fraudulent activity came to light. An avalanche of negative press helped sink the company very quickly and had repercussions for accounting standards worldwide.

A more modest example closer to home was revealed on the weekend in the Sunday Star Times. It carried the story of an Auckland hire company that had already received huge damage to its image as a result of a negative email from one of its staff to a prospective customer.

After the prospect had indicated they did not want to hire one of company's marquees for their wedding, a representative of the company replied, "Your wedding sounded cheap, nasty and tacky anyway, so we only ever considered you time wasters. Our marquees are for upper class clients which unfortunately you are not. Why don't you stay within your class level and buy something from payless plastics instead."

What can you do when bad news hits?

The best defence is obviously not to do anything wrong. But given there are so many possibilities for attracting negative publicity - redundancies, a failed project, fraud, environmental incidences, product issues and so on - it is often hard to avoid issues that might make the paper.

The next best defence is to have prepared well. Companies that survive through PR disasters are often those that already have a relationship with their target media i.e. media from their industry, business journalists and media in their geographical area. The better the relationships and level of trust with these reporters the greater the likelihood of a fair hearing when things go bad.

It might be counterintuitive but the ideal response is to be as open as you possibly can and move as fast as you possibly can. Faced with a crisis you need to clarify the situation quickly and then get your story out to as many media as possible. The more you try to hide and obfuscate, the greater likelihood it will turn into a bigger story than ever before.

Companies are always tempted to hide as much as possible, but it doesn't usually work. There may be valid legal reasons for not disclosing, especially where redundancies are involved. But even in those cases be careful to balance legal advice with other views as disclosure is more likely to minimise damage to your brand.

What are the keys to managing a media crisis effectively?

  • Get a team together of people who will need to play a role in solving the crisis - a decision-maker, a media spokesperson, HR if it involves staff, legal, operations if it is operational.
  • Ensure you have established the facts very clearly especially about what is being done to solve the problem. If you don't the media soon will.
  • Identify all of the key audiences - staff, suppliers, customers - and determine the best ways to communicate with them. For example it might be appropriate for your CEO to call your major customers.
  • Get a clear, concise statement out to as a wide a media catchment as you can. Then deal with their queries efficiently and be as open as possible (given constraints like employment law).
  • Ensure action is underway to address the problem and update all the key audiences, including the media, about progress.
  • Plan ahead for your next crisis!

And the Kazakhs? They just needed a sense of humour from the beginning. They had a great opportunity to capitalise on the exposure 'Borat' has given them to paint a picture of a great undiscovered nation, but instead reinforced all the silly stereotypes the film plays on.

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