What are the teachable moments? The short article in Fast Company is here if you’d like to read it.
In a nutshell – I think airbnb eventually got to the right place and I was impressed with the letter their founder Brian Chesky wrote and their new commitment to safety and damages. Obviously they wish they would have figured this out a bit more quickly, but as a young team I personally cut them a little bit more slack than I would if it were Oracle, for example.
But I thought I’d use the situation to talk more broadly about some PR lessons you might learn for your own business and also incorporate some situations I’ve faced recently with some portfolio companies.
If You Don’t Shape Your Story, Somebody Else Will
My golden rule of public relations is that “if you don’t shape your story somebody else will.” We see this in politics all the time. Think John Kerry and the “swift boat” scandal. Whatever your political view we can all agree that John Kerry is a terrible communicator. He’s verbose, often off message and wooden.
Understand the Gravity of the Situation for Your Customers
So how do you know when to publicly come forward with information and when to not do so? Is it ever appropriate to just let a news cycle pass assuming the story will move on and die down? The obvious starting points to think to yourself are:
Has something happened that fundamentally affects my customers or partners?
Is there a story that negatively affects how people perceive my brand?
Is there a reason I need to communicate to my constituents?
Is there a need to change my policies, announce a mea culpa or get a topic focused on the right points?
If you’ve done something that is wrong you should put it right immediately. Do not expect it to blow over. The perception of your brand by not responding will not recover. You cannot seem overly defensive. If you believe that journalists or competitors are telling a story that isn’t right you need to put that straight. Do so by winning the hearts and minds on substantive talking points rather than attacking others. Attacking always comes across as petty.
Don’t Bury Bad News
If you have information about a situation that has gone terribly wrong don’t cover it up. Remember that the cover up always ends up worse that the actual infraction. We learned that from the original “gate.” If you were hacked and customer passwords were stolen, get the story to your customers ASAP. Yes, it will be bad. But imagine how much worse the story will be in 30 days when people find out you knew their information was stolen and they didn’t have a chance to reset passwords, cancel credit cards or whatever other remedies they would have preferred to make.
Never Blame the Press
The most tempting thing for inexperienced entrepreneurs to do is to attack the press. It’s easy to say somebody hates you, got the story wrong, is lying, has biases, etc. In fact, some of these things may even be true in some circumstances. Your job is to change the situation, not shoot the messenger. Build deeper relationships. Have private conversations to change opinions. Find other media outlets to tell your story. Know your positive talking points. But don’t pick a fight with the press. That’s a war you’re not going to win.