Research shows that if you go on trial there are jurors who may decide whether you are guilty or innocent before your defense team even begins presenting its side of the case. In other words, you could be dead meat before you’ve had a chance to fully demonstrate your claim of innocence.
In my experience, the same applies to the public if you don’t handle a crisis well at the start. As in court, many decide your culpability based on the first information they see. If you drag your feet to defend and say little or nothing then woe be unto you. It can also impact news coverage.
Let me paint a picture from my days as a reporter. Someone calls, “Rick, Acme Company is cheating its customers and I can prove it.” I call Acme and ask, “What do you have to say about this accusation?” Acme says, “We’ll get back to you.” Importantly, although Acme isn’t ready to respond I must continue to work on the story. Acme is a big company in the community and employs many.
I tell the newscast producer, “I may have a report about Acme cheating customers.” He says, “OK, let’s lead with it. Get more information, get their response, and keep me up to date.” Now I have a deadline. I have to continue writing the report. For the next three hours, while Acme still doesn’t call, I interview the original complainer, photograph his alleged evidence, and obtain comments from others. I begin writing the story as the producer promotes it on the air. (Today, it would also be on the website and perhaps Twitter.) Now we are about four hours into preparing the story without a word from Acme about the allegations. Although I want to be fair, by default my story is almost entirely negative.
I call Acme again to say I badly need a comment. They say, “We’re waiting on approval from corporate.” Finally, about 30 minutes before the newscast, Acme calls to read a statement saying the allegations are false and Acme will provide more information the next day.
Now what do we do? We’ve worked half a day on a story about Acme, and because we promoted it all afternoon our competitors certainly know about it. For all we know, they are going to run it as well. Acme is that big.
In the end we run the story about Acme allegedly cheating customers and twice mention that the company denies it. Because the company gave us almost nothing to work with, the content of the report is 90% negative.
What do you suppose the public’s opinion about Acme will be? Negative: because of our story of accusations not persuasively countered by the company. It’s going to be a hard climb out of the hole.
My point is this. When facing a public challenge or crisis your job is to convey your best side in the FIRST story: the one most likely to shape public opinion. This applies not just to traditional media but to social media as well. The longer you let an error or a misrepresentation linger in public without resolution or correction the more the negative sticks to your reputation.