How to Turn Negative Publicity into a PR Opportunity

Even the largest and best-managed company can have the occasional misstep. Public relations specialists will argue that it’s the law of probability; with enough people involved and enough time passing, somebody can and will make a mistake. So even if you think your company is bulletproof, it’s important that businesses have a crisis management plan in place for how to deal with the reputational fallout of negative publicity.

In the current iteration of the online world, brands face backlash because people are reacting to what they perceive as right and wrong. Often it's done quickly and without much thought as to the repercussions of their actions or even if what they are saying is actually factual. Anybody can take to Twitter, Threads, or other social media platforms and post pretty much whatever they want about your company – whether it is true or not. Often the damage is already done in the court of public opinion before the real truth can be told. 

This makes companies vulnerable not only to the individuals who review their activity but to the actions of competitors. Other companies are watching and waiting for brands to fail so they can jump on social media and label an unfortunate situation as #controversial, #discriminatory, and #badexample or just to simply use it as publicity for their own brand.

Companies from DiGornio to MoonPies have used other brands' missteps as an opportunity to troll their competitors.

Even if your company is faced with negative PR, it doesn’t have to mean it’s the end of the world. There are things you can do before, during, and after a negative event that will help your company recover and maintain a positive online reputation.

What is negative PR?

Negative PR is when negative news is spread about a brand. Even if it's not true, it can discredit a company or individual and destroy the brand’s reputation and corporate identity.

Popular discrediting techniques are:

  • Fake news
  • Employee mistakes
  • Negative reviews
  • Disclosure of corporate dirty secrets
  • Production of misleading facts

How do you deal with negative PR?

While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with negative PR, a few things to keep in mind when developing your brand’s approach to managing a publicity crisis.

Take a look at Facebook, a brand that came under fire in 2018. The way they responded to backlash is an example for all companies. Instead of ignoring the allegations, Facebook responded to them upfront. The way a brand manages negative news tells the public a lot about its values.

It is critical to respond to negative publicity and attempt to recover from it quickly. If you don’t, not only could your reputation suffer, but as a result, your sales might as well. BrightLocal’s Consumer Review Survey 2022 provides evidence that a business’s online reputation directly affects company profits:

  • 77% 'always' or 'regularly' read reviews when browsing for local businesses, which is up from 60% in 2020
  • 89% of consumers said they are 'highly' or 'fairly' likely to use a business that responds to all of its online reviews
  • In 2021, only 3% would consider using a business with an average star rating of two or less stars, which is down from 14% from 2020
  • 81% of consumers use Google to evaluate local businesses, up from 63%

What people say about you online is important. So, here is how to handle negative PR and turn it into a marketing opportunity.

Promote your brand as a problem solver

Negative publicity can be an opportunity for your brand to collect feedback and become a stronger company. Analyze every piece of bad news posted about your company. If your audience states that you need to improve your services, listen to them and let it be known that you are making changes.

Most unsatisfied customers will still purchase from you again if you resolve the complaint in their favor. When a client isn’t happy with your services, try to understand what you’re doing wrong and find a solution. Learn from the complaints, even if you didn't think they were initially mistakes. Remember, your customer is not only a source of revenue but also information.

By solving the problems highlighted by your clients, you build a better relationship with them and transform negative publicity into a favorable situation. Each step you take to find a solution will help your reputation recover and improve your company.

Prompt apologies drive sympathy

If an employee offends clients or your brand’s policy threatens their satisfaction or safety, you need to solve the problem and apologize. A team manager should call the client or write a sincere and swift letter to be effective. You need to take responsibility for what happened. Let the public know that not only have you heard their concerns and complaints, but you are making changes, even possibly including training for your employees so they can serve customers better.

If you’re having trouble writing a professional letter, you can choose to work with a company that provides academic essay writers to review your apology letter and ensure it doesn’t contain writing errors.

Brands of all sizes make bad judgments regarding branding and advertising, and the best approach is to publicly admit your mistake. Often what was thought to be a humorous or edgy post on social media gets a company in hot water and they have to walk it back and apologize for the misstep.

Being upfront, honest and rapid in your response is also important. Southwest Airlines received acclaim because they got in front of a story of a jet landing nose-first at LaGuardia Airport. Because they kept the public informed and did not hide behind agencies and a curtain of confidentiality, Southwest was able to keep customer approval. 


Track both positive and negative reviews

If you want to restore your reputation, you must divert attention from negative reviews. Identify them and respond to each client who had a bad experience. Sometimes, negative reviews show up in search results even if you solved the issue because there’s no positive information listed about your brand. To have them removed, you need to ask satisfied clients to post feedback. Often, the directories that host reviews will remove negative ones when you prove they’re untrue. When you cannot remove negative reviews, diffuse them with positive comments and publicity by improving reviews and ratings for your brand. 

Don’t let negative reviews control your business. Solve the problem the best you can and then move on to improving services. Don’t become obsessed with how negative feedback affects your reputation, but do understand that it takes time to turn things around. Be patient. Reputation management is a complex process, but it’s worth making the effort.

Let the world know when false rumors are…false

Even big brands like Nutella and Amway have been victims of false news. By addressing rumors as false, you prove to clients they can trust your services. Removing misinformation maintains loyal clients.

In 2016, reports panicked the world when the media announced that Nutella contained carcinogenic palm oil. To address the false rumors, the company shared the ingredients of the chocolate-hazelnut spread with the public. The scandal didn’t affect sales.

Taco Bell was faced with accusations that it wasn't using real beef in its menu offerings. The company came out publicly and explained exactly what was in their meat. Sandwich chain Subway has faced several lawsuits regarding the validity of claims that it uses real tuna. The company launched a website fighting the accusations and vigorously defended itself against the lawsuits.

nutella-ingredientsOften, reputation damage comes from a mismatch between buzz and reality. Tracking false rumors and addressing them helps you maintain your trustworthiness.

Humanize your brand

When your clients have a bad experience because of your products or services, you shouldn’t ignore them. Acknowledging their problems helps humanize your brand. Encourage people to contact your customer service team when they’re facing issues, have questions or complaints. Show your customers you are listening to what they have to say by responding, solving their problem, sending apologies and asking for feedback and suggestions.

Respond to genuine posts on social media and review sites and make sure the responses sound like they were done by real people and not an automated bot. Thank people when they provide feedback, no matter if it’s positive or negative. It shows audiences how valuable their opinions are and makes them comfortable to contact you in the future. As stated before, reviews are a positive tool for promoting your brand.

People will connect with a brand that shares the same values as them. Try these tips:

  • Show the people behind the brand by using real photos of the actual people who work for your company
  • Have team members become brand ambassadors to spread true information about your company and products
  • Create an online community for your clients where they can interact with you and other people who enjoy your products
  • Personalize your marketing content
  • Send Welcome/Thank You letters to loyal clients
  • Share stories of failure and what you’ve learned

Humor can be a great tool as well, as long as it is used carefully and done in good taste. After the Taco Bell meat "scandal," the company placed ads poking fun at the lawsuit. Following some negative publicity regarding heart attacks and their equipment on television shows, Pelaton worked with a PR firm and created an ad poking fun at the situation (although this led to other publicity problems with one of the stars of the ad.) Other companies have done the same, including Pepsi and KFC, but it should not be done in a spiteful or boastful manner. Some brands have even laughed at their own mistakes with a bit of self-deprecating humor.

Use every opportunity to improve your online image

Your brand’s reputation is a valuable asset, and it can make or break your success. Learn from big companies and their mistakes. When dealing with backlash, you can gain valuable insight to make changes to problems you didn’t even realize you had and make your company even better. Learning from big brands is always a good practice.

Negative publicity FAQs

What is negative PR?

Negative PR is the practice of spreading negative news about a brand. Some of the most common discrediting techniques are fake news, negative reviews, and disclosure of corporate dirty secrets. Negative PR can cause lasting damage to a brand's reputation and corporate identity. 

What are the best ways to combat negative PR?

The first step in dealing with a negative PR campaign is to acknowledge and apologize. Then you can use this as an opportunity to market your brand as a problem solver. Track positive and negative reviews to keep a finger on the pulse of the situation and respond to feedback.

How can I humanize my brand?

Humanizing your brand can make it easier to recover from negative publicity. Spotlight your employees. Create an online community of brand ambassadors. Personalize your marketing content. Tell stories of failure and growth and consider using humor about the situation.

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