Food, finance and health are three areas in which the media constantly compete for headline-grabbing scare stories, which can often have damaging consequences for the brands and industries involved. Lauren Walker, Account Director, discusses how it’s more important than ever to understand how best to manage media interest in your products & brands.
Just recently, Tesco hit the headlines with an exposé on its own-brand sausages potentially infected with Hepatitis E and, closer to home, consumer watchdog group Which? released a report investigating the efficacy of the health claims across a range of popular health and beauty products.
Given today’s fast-moving media climate, every brand is vulnerable to crisis at a moment’s notice. So it’s crucial that companies are prepared to manage potentially damaging issues which may unfairly threaten brand perceptions and consumer trust.
As communications partner for PAGB, we ensure the media presentation of news relating to the OTC sector and its products is accurate and fair. We also help drive the self care agenda to ensure the public, stakeholders and media properly grasp the role of OTC medicines in managing self-treatable conditions, reducing the burden on NHS services. Much of our work however is re-balancing negative media stories by providing factual statements to defuse negative or misleading headlines, minimising (and in some cases removing) the potential impact on the industry.
Our crisis and issues management team have years of cross-sector experience and, on a daily basis, provide strategic counsel on a range of industry issues from ingredients and pricing to product safety and efficacy. Although all companies will have specific risks and priorities, there are a number of general but transferable principles in crisis management which can be applied in most circumstances:
- Know the facts – This may be an obvious place to start but sometimes the facts may not be very clear at first glance. Many of the issues we deal with are prompted by newly published academic research, often (but not always) clinical, raising questions about the efficacy of common ingredients in well-established OTC categories such as painkillers and NSAIDs. Such research is increasingly being packaged for the media with little or no reference to the caveats in the main research reports which impact the reliability of the research findings. This means a greater guarantee of column inches for the research authors, but at the cost of usually inaccurate or unbalanced presentation of the facts. So the first step in effective crisis management is checking the full facts – finding the original research documentation and accessing the caveats and warnings, so these can be included in your response to help balance the negative angle taken by the journalist. An example of this could be when certain medical conditions haven’t been taken into consideration when reviewing data, which have implications for overall findings.
- Prepare a bank of editable statements – Timing is crucial for media and deadlines are often very short, so sometimes there isn’t the opportunity to secure urgent approvals in time. Therefore, to avoid the temptation to panic, and ensure the best chance to represent your position, we recommend having a prepared set of pre-approved statements and Q&As. Most organisations broadly know their weak spots and so pre-approved statements should be easy to organise. It is vital to ensure that the actual statements offered are no more than two or three sentences. The media are more likely to use short and simple responses and are known to pick out the weakest parts of longer statements to use instead. Their article looks stronger and they tick the box in terms of giving you a right of reply. An important adjunct to this preparation is to conduct regular horizon scanning for any potential issues which may arise in the coming months – this may for example be linked to a licence approval, a regulatory review or similar.
- Be clear on your key messages – It can be difficult to know what angles the media will take when it comes to a crisis. Understanding the core messaging for your brand and your proof of product claims is critical when it comes to providing the best opportunity to balance or defend any misleading assertions being made. It may be tempting to create a long list of brand or product benefits and go into detail about why these are important. However, it is better to be short and concise with your answers, making sure their tone and content is suitable for the typical reader of the publication concerned.
- Select a spokesperson – Whether it is broadcast or print interviews, it is important to have a credible spokesperson available to put forward to media e.g. CEO or CMO and ensure they are fully media trained and are a confident communicator when being challenged. Testing responses with colleagues could help ensure the spokespeople are clear on your key messages. Remember that when speaking to journalists there is really no such thing as ‘off the record’. It is also usually beneficial to leverage third-party endorsements from credible experts who can reinforce your points. Make reference to supporting research or clinical data on efficacy that supports product claims and look for other supporting evidence which could be used to strengthen the argument.
- Know when you need to comment – Generally speaking, saying ‘no comment’ often suggests you are guilty, so it’s advisable to provide a response in the vast majority of cases. If you do not have the full facts then explain this and add it as a clear caveat to your response. Although it is not an exact science, key occasions when companies should put themselves forward for comment include: incorrect product claims being made; customer service complaints about the brand hitting the headlines; internal HR issues being shared to the media by a disgruntled employee; and caveats on research which have been ignored by journalists. There are however occasions where it is better to refer the media to the industry body or a charity that can provide a response on behalf of the sector, which is generally when more than one product or a category of products is being attacked. This is one of the core benefits PAGB offers to members, responding on behalf of the industry and driving attention away from specific brands when it’s appropriate to do so.
- Respect the power of social media – Many people access news through smartphones, and information is much easier to access and share online than it has ever been before. It is important to make sure you are aware of the power of social media and online influencers and have a strategy in place when it comes to brand perception and negative issues management. Many negative media stories derive from personal customer experiences shared via their social channels, which have quickly spread on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. A recent issue we dealt with on the topic of branded vs. generic medicines stemmed from a social media post which got picked up by the Huffington Post, who then investigated the story and wrote a negative article as a result. Needless to say, this secured wider pick up from online publications.
- Put public opinion first – Put yourself in the position of the consumer when you are writing your statements and be cautious of public opinion and potential for media or consumer backlash. If the issue or crisis you are dealing with is highly emotive or sensitive, this needs to be handled with extra care and thought. If an individual or family has been affected by the brand or ingredient for example, then it is good practice to share your personal sympathy to those involved before beginning to talk about brand or ingredient in question.
- Know when to turn a crisis into an opportunity – The final point to make is that with careful planning, preparation and communication, issues handled effectively have the potential to be treated as an opportunity to communicate a positive position or responsible opinion.
If you would be interested to hear more about our crisis and issues management offering, contact Lauren.Walker@thisispegasus.co.uk or call 01273 712000.