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Bad PR Sparks Fire of Change in U.S. Businesses

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

Nothing gets management's attention faster than negative media attention.

  • Media coverage can have significant effects on businesses.
  • Bad PR may actually be beneficial for business.
  • If your business experiences negative PR, there are ways to save your reputation.

Want to get a company's attention? Go public with your gripes. Few things prompt change in U.S. businesses as much as bad media attention does, research shows.

A study by University of Illinois business professor Michael Bednar found that negative media coverage prompts firms to engage in greater levels of strategic change than previously thought.

"As the news media reports negatively about firms, that registers with executives," Bednar said. "And that, in turn, prompts executives to engage in larger-scale strategic change."

As part of the study, Bednar and co-authors Steven Boivie, a professor at the University of Arizona, and Nicholas Prince, a doctoral student at Illinois, used computer-aided content analysis to determine how favorable the media coverage was for 250 firms over the course of five years. They examined 40,000 articles and were able to quantify how positive or negative the coverage of the firm was.

"After we controlled for performance and several other variables that could affect media coverage, we found evidence for the main effect, that negative media coverage may act as a trigger for strategic change," Bednar said.

The researchers identified three main ways in which the media influences strategic change among businesses, including by simply reporting the actions of a firm.

"By shining a light on certain issues, and by the choices that journalists and editors make about what to cover, that has an influence," he said. "So if you have two firms who do essentially the same thing, the one that captures the media's eye is going to be amplified."

Another way the media can have an effect on a company is that it can act as the voice for different stakeholder groups who seek are looking for a way to spread their message.

"That means that even smaller groups can enact change or have outsize influence, because now the media has given them a platform to voice their views," Bednar said.

The study shows the final way media can influence change is through investigative reporting, such as that by Bethany McLean, who helped to expose Enron in 2001.

"Through investigative reporting, she discovered that their financial statements didn't make much sense," he said.

Not all bad publicity prompts change, however. The researchers said companies that are generally successful don't run into as many problems with negative media attention. One example they point to is Nike, which came under fire for the working conditions of its factories in China but still manages to be one of the most valued companies in terms of market capitalization.

"If the firm is doing well financially, that certainly makes it easier to tune out the negative chatter from the outside," Bednar said. "The flip side, of course, is that when things are going poorly, the negative media coverage becomes that much louder, and makes that negative performance stand out that much more, which then acts as a strong trigger for strategic change."

Bednar said the key takeaway from the research is that the media is a powerful force that can easily influence the perception of most companies. He warns CEOs not to make biased decisions if they're overly influenced by negative coverage

"Just being aware of that potential influence can help you make better decisions, because there will probably come a time when it will be a good thing to respond to the media scrutiny," he said. "But there also may be other times when it makes sense to ignore the chatter and continue with a strategy that could pay dividends down the road."

The researchers also caution business leaders to not discount negative media attention when the company is performing well.

"That can make us so focused on, 'Hey, we're doing fine, we don't need to listen to outside voices,'" Bednar said. "Well, that's a situation that could pose a risk to firms as well."

The study can be found in the journal Organization Science.

What is bad PR?

Public relations is intended to foster a positive relationship between a business and the public through various types of communication, including social media, traditional media and in-person engagements. Bad PR is anything negative that is said or done to or through a business; and in many situations, it can quickly destroy a business or an individual.

However, in some situations, as reported in a study from Stanford Graduate School of Business, bad PR may actually be beneficial for a business in the long run, ultimately increasing product awareness as well as their revenue.

How do you manage bad PR?

Negative PR can hit a business owner where it hurts them the most – their wallet. Although it may take time and dedication, bad PR is usually manageable.

Here are four tips to follow if your business is facing negative PR:

  1. Own up to the negative press. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, so the best thing to do is own up. By owning up, you are showing that your business is being forthcoming and honest with the public, which often helps to restore the public's respect.

  2. Make good on the error. If the bad PR is due to something such as a defective product, replacing the product or offering refunds demonstrates to the public that you want to be a part of the solution.

  3. Ride it out. There is nothing worse than when a business or an organization makes promises but never follows through. It's important to stay on course and follow through on commitments to repair faults. This means the business will need to be honest and realistic when it comes to making promises about what can be done to make the situation right.

  4. Communicate. Once the business has owned up to the mistake, it is critical that the communications continue. For instance, don't simply ignore the problem in hopes it will go away. Instead, stay in contact with those affected to relay updates and timeline when the problem will be resolved.
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