A reporter was ripping a publicly held homebuilder to shreds in a major newspaper and was hounding the CEO for an interview. The CEO was considering buying full-page ads to fight the reporter. He certainly had no intention of granting the interview.

After reviewing the articles, we’d agreed the reporter slanted the stories to present this company as the prototypical, evil corporation.

"But is he right?" I asked. "Is it true that you didn't build the homes up to code? That your local management denied it at first and then you had to buy the houses back because of ongoing water damage? And you're going to be fined by the local authorities?"

"Yes, that part is true, but he's being so nasty about it!"

The easiest way to avoid a crisis is to deliver what you are supposed to in the first place, whether it's a home, a brochure or any other product or service. And if a mistake happens, own up to it and fix it. This company had tried to own up to its mistakes and fix them but not until steadfastly denying the truth and ignoring the plight of their fuming customers.

Can't hide

Article after scathing article would be published and sales would come to a standstill. The story would spread nationally thanks to wire services and the Internet. What 10 years ago would have affected its operations in a single city today had the potential to ravage its reputation in every  market from Wall Street to Lombard Street.

Refusing to comment and running ads would only inflame the situation and suggest guilt. I urged the CEO to accept the mistakes, apologize and make amends. This recommendation was noted and ignored - until the next scathing installment was published. The CEO then agreed to the interview. We taped the interview and provided a written statement as defenses against inaccuracies and misquotes. I recommended the following plan:

  • Sincerely express the sympathy for his customers that local managers did not;
  • Emphasize the homes in question were isolated instances of honest mistakes made by honest people;
  • Reinforce the company honored its warranty and beyond and continues to stand by its homes.

We provided the reporter with a written statement to ensure our points would be understood without question, as well as with information about the company's national awards and honors.

Pre-emptive strike

At a forthcoming meeting with local building authorities, the company was to be fined and publicly blasted. I recommended sending a high level company representative to the meeting, where the executive would distribute a written statement to and speak with the media. Content was to include a complete review of the company's customer service procedures. This tactic would ensure the company's position would be included in the news the next day.

Micro-level measures

I recommended providing its sales people, all over the country, with a fact sheet detailing what was happening, how it was being addressed, and why their prospects need not be concerned. This material would be kept hidden "in the drawer" until needed. Secondly, the response program featured displaying letters from happy customers in the sales centers of every community in the country, as well as positive news clippings. Further, the response program featured placing articles on the company's history, honors, quality assurance, warranty program, quality of construction and similar subjects in advertorial real estate sections. The facts of the matter were also to be published on the company's Web site.

It felt as if I was living an article I contributed to BUILDER Magazine about how to handle an online crisis.

Epilogue

When the reporter wrote additional installments on the issue, the company's positions were included with quotes from the CEO. Of course, some of the negative slant could be detected, but the company was now in a position to recover from the damage rather than wallow in its own mess. People are often willing to forgive honest mistakes - even reporters and customers - as long as they are promptly addressed and corrected. What made this situation offensive to the customers and an irresistible story for the reporter was the corporate giant's blatant insensitivity and wanton disregard for its own customers.

Common Sense Marketers Know:

  1. Refusing to comment paints the company in question as a villain with something to hide, regardless of the truth.
  2. People are often willing to forgive honest mistakes - even reporters and customers - as long as mistakes are promptly addressed and corrected.
  3. Call your PR firm to prevent these situations from spiraling out of control, rather than to put out the fire after the damage has been done.

ideas@eprmarketing.com
(908) 479.4231