“Fat Passengers Should Pay More,” Other PR Disasters, and How to Handle Them

In 2002, SouthWest Airlines hit the headlines in the USA in spectacular style after announcing that they were planning to charge overweight people for two seats rather than one. From irate passengers to newspaper columnists, the public outcry was so great that the company was forced to back down from its earlier commitment and earned an unenviable reputation for an uncaring attitude amongst potential passengers.

Meanwhile in 2001, ‘spin doctor’ Jo Moore made the headlines herself when she suggested that the UK government use the opportunity to ‘bury bad news’ on September 11th as the twin towers blazed in New York. Months later she was forced to resign her position and the first indelible association of Tony Blair’s government with ‘spin’ was created. It was an association they found impossible to shift.

Two different cases, but each highlighting the phenonema of living in media-saturated age. As rolling news and the internet create an ever-short life cycle for a ‘story’, journalists and bloggers alike have developed incredible attenae for the detection of a ‘gaffe’ . An unguarded word in front of a small audience can reach the attention of millions within minutes and any sense of nuance or contect is quickly buried under a torrent of instant comment and shrill demands for retribution.

Any organisation that needs (or wants to) interface with the media must now face this reality. When any and every communication can be pulled apart by story-hungry audiences for a newsworthy angle, professional communications are no longer a luxury – but a necessity.

So how can a PR agency help you develop a media strategy? Firstly, they are attuned to the way the media works. It is often the case that people are unaware of how journalists create stories – or even what can be deemed newsworthy. An effective PR operation can coach and advise anybody who is likely to speak to the media to make sure that what they say is free from ambiguity or angles that the press can use to their detriment. Often, companies are forced to release bad news to their customers or investors – particularly true during these times of economic uncertainty and retrenchment.

They can also develop effective methods of response in case something does creep out. Nothing is more likely to confirm the ‘truth’ of even the most egregious story in the mind of the public than a stuttering performance from a spokesman who declares it all to be ‘preposterous nonsense.’ Effective PR in such circumstances must be measured, calm and in command of the facts. Even the old standbys of ‘no comment’ and ‘quoted out of context’ carry considerable weight, because they imply that the story is worthless, and can draw the sting from a story surprisingly quickly.

Of course, a lot of these events catch organisations by surprise. This is because without a media monitoring service, they are simply unaware of a developing story. The first they know of it is when they are doorstepped by an enterprising journalist and effectively trapped into saying the wrong thing.

A good PR company will be monitoring the press for mention of your organisation and how to respond to anything negative. That way, when the first mentions of the story are hitting the news you are prepared, briefed and have a line of attack that will nullify the negative aspects of the story.

So if you are anywhere near the public sphere, it is crucial that you look to employ a reputable and reliable PR company. For all you might think that it is a expensive overhead you can do without, if you decide to go it alone the very reputation of your company is in the hands of the media and five seconds of careless speech can undo decades of patient work.