Tips on managing negative press

Is all press good? Perhaps not, but you can turn negative press around to your advantage with a clear head and a few simple tips.

Most people have heard of the catch-phrase: ‘there is no such thing as bad press’. It’s the belief that if you are in front of people’s eyes and minds you will be memorable despite what is being said.

In its own contradictory way, that moment of attention and recognition can be desirable, given the difficulty to get heard in the stream of noise.

However, If you have hooked a captive audience unintentionally it’s up to you to massage the situation to your advantage – to correct it, to use it, to extend it.

While negative press usually ends up not being as bad as it first seems – a fire that burns brightly and quickly – you need to understand what exactly is being said, and identify when and how you are going to respond to a professional slur.

And, should disaster strike, most of all be smart. No matter how serious the negative commentary is, it is important that you know how to minimise the damage.

What to do if you experience negative press

Negative publicity can reach the masses at lightning speed, and well before you can even mount a case in defence. It is during the aftermath of the negative press that your actions are key. You need to take control of the situation, and douse it down.

A bad review of an exhibition or negative blogging perhaps should be left in the realm of opinion – and will be read as that – whereas the reporting of incorrect facts or a slur on an organisation or artist’s name may necessitate a more formal response.

The first action is to take a step back. Go and make a cup of tea, and then read it again. Ask the simple questions:

  • Will this comment definitely impact upon my reputation?
  • Is the source of the commentary well-known/respected enough that people will indeed read it, and take it on board?
  • Is it factually inaccurate, or unduly biased?

If it is a simple case of incorrect facts, most journalists are very happy to correct details, as it is their integrity also on the line and, largely, the mistake was unintended.

Go straight to the source and request a correction. Most journalists’ email addresses are published with their byline, or you can always call the editor.

If, however, the slur is more intended as a damning critique, then you need to be a little more strategic in your response. It’s about protecting your image and restoring it as quickly as possible.

Today we are drowning in opinions; the atmosphere is one where everyone knows everything. How do you rein that ‘commentary’ back in to a more reasonable or realistic perspective in a timely way?

Often it can be viewed as an opportunity – a moment to listen to what these individuals are saying. People pay for that kind of feedback from a focus group. Take it as a learning experience.

Whether in print, electronic or digital media there are a few basic rules to remember to help you move beyond such storms:

1. Be timely

Don’t sit and stew on it. Don’t just call the editor and blast them in the heat of emotion. If it needs action, be timely and calm.

Clearly assess the situation and work out your strategy for response. Get your messaging in place. Chances are you’ll want to address it with your organisational stakeholders, or your established media contacts to give them a heads-up.

2. Nothing is sometimes best

These fires will blaze brightly and then quickly burn out. Doing nothing is sometimes best.  Don’t dig a deeper hole and bury yourself by exacerbating the situation.

While it is tempting to respond to scathing comments on the internet to defend your position, sometimes it’s best not to fuel the virtual fight. These commentators are often flanked by a like-minded army, which can quickly swell. Nothing will be resolved in this situation. Let the haters destroy their own credibility.

3. Make contact

If the piece is factually incorrect, then reach out to the source directly to request a follow-up. Contact the editor or journalist personally and politely explain the inaccuracy.

If the journalist was unable to speak with you before their story broke, then you may create the possibility for a run-on story allowing your point to be heard. Often the media are delighted to feature a response.

4. Don’t get hysterical

The best piece of advice is to remember that people have relatively short attention spans. Don’t panic, and don’t get hysterical. Respond with composure.

Maintain humanity and humility. Never raise your voice, and never respond in CAPITALS. Gather your information – what exactly has been said and how far has it spread? And then work out a strategy for response. Stay clear headed.

And if you need advice, speed dial Arts Law Australia.

5. Issue a statement

The upside of negative press or commentary is that you can counter the accusation. This can be done with a media release circulated the same/next day, or through a well-constructed letter to the editor for print.

Try to find a positive angle, or return to the foundation of the argument and find its counterpoint. Look at it as an opportunity to present the alternative opinion – but do it in a calm and intelligent manner. Have clear facts to support your position.

If it is a major issue, then sometimes you may need to assign a spokesperson to speak on your behalf to the media – such as your gallerist or the chair of your Board.

To have a streamlined and consistent message is key.

6. Be transparent

Nothing will make people angrier than the feeling that you’re dodging the issue, so start with a clear acknowledgement. And if it’s something severe that should be addressed as a public apology, then own up to it, be direct and transparent.

No apology is worse than an apology that does not express an effort to change. Use the situation to learn from the mistake targeted, and tell people the steps you are taking to prevent similar incidents.

Overall, bad press can also be thought of as the pointy end of freedom of speech.

And if still unsure, then consider this. The best way to get away from negative comment is to prove them wrong – outperform it.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina