Responding to Bad News

Is Conventional PR Wisdom Changing?

Don’t get into a public fight with media over negative stories.

That’s always been the conventional wisdom for organizations faced with bad press. Going on the offensive just fuels the controversy and generates more coverage that keeps the story alive.

However, two current controversies suggest viewpoints may be changing.

First, A New York Times story – “Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” – cast its workplace culture in a negative light.

Initially, Amazon issued a conventional response. CEO Jeff Bezos sent a memo to employees later stating that while he felt the article misrepresented the culture, he encouraged employees to read it and report any abusive practices to management.

The memo was also leaked to an online media site and got a lot of exposure without getting into a gunfight with the Times.

That approach changed on October 19 – more than two months after the article appeared – with a guest article on, “What the New York Times Didn’t Tell You. ” Authored by Jay Carney, Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs at Amazon and former White House Press Secretary for President Obama, the post attacked the credibility of the Times reporters and the former employees quoted in the story. The post included information allegedly from their employee files.

So much for letting a story die quietly. Carney’s post spurred coverage by Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, CNN, USA Today and others.

The second ongoing controversy involves PBS NewsHour and Success Academies, a highly regarded charter school chain in New York City. Success Academies is well-known for its disciplined, structured – and successful – learning environment.

However, on October 12 NewsHour included Success in a story about school suspension policies, “Is kindergarten too young to suspend a student?” It’s a serious issue because some experts say suspensions in early grades lead to poor performance later in school and increase the drop-out rate.

NewsHour had interviewed a number of parents saying their children had been suspended for minor violations. However, only one former student and parent were willing to be interviewed on camera and allow their names to be used. Both said the boy left the school after being suspended, mostly for minor issues, though the mother acknowledged he is prone to “outbursts” and “meltdowns.”

While the story was critical of Success, it was balanced with positive content. For instance, the reporter notes that the schools are “wildly popular among parents, with 10 applicants for every seat.” The segment also includes extended remarks by the Success CEO.

Success responded by posting an extended response to NewsHour that included what Success claimed were excerpts from the student’s file showing the boy’s “outbursts” were often violent. While the letter referred to the boy as “John Doe,” he had been named in the news story.

If the strategy was to keep the story alive and drive more coverage, it was a big success. On October 20, PBS NewsHour issued an online response to Success Academies’ critique. A popular blog noted that Success Academies almost surely violated a federal law protecting student privacy. The story also provided useful content for high-profile charter-school opponents. A key trade publication picked up the story.

Two similar incidents may bear more resemblance to a coincidence than a trend. But clearly prominent organizations are deciding that hardball responses are worth the risks and downsides.

What do you think? Is waging an offensive against critical reporting worth the risks to corporate image and brand?


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