When you’re overtaken by events, act quickly, decisively and confidently.

I’m getting a new iPod Nano, it seems. At first, I thought it was a hoax – yet another spam email that Outlook had failed to spot. But no. This time, it was the real Mac-Coy. The stories in the papers made me chuckle. Apple iPod Nano recall of earliest model: If you find yours, get a new one free, said the man from the Daily Mail. Apple recalls 1st-generation iPod nano — remember those? said the LA Times. Well, yes, actually – I do remember those. And I can find mine. For the simple reason that six years on, I’m still using it virtually every day. And guess what? It hasn’t exploded yet. But that’s not the point. It still might go pop, and that’s enough to send Apple’s PR people into overdrive. So I’ve registered for a free replacement, and before you know it (and in time for Christmas, I hope) I’ll have a brand-new one, with video, FM radio, and the ever-useful pedometer. Be still, my beating iPod. So it’s bad news turned into good news, as millions of people get an Apple windfall. You just couldn’t buy that sort of publicity. It’s a bad news story, followed by quick decisive action, and a happy ending. Yes, yes, it’s an expensive campaign, and one they’d rather not have. But they are where they are, and their response has been an object lesson in how to handle bad news. They hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and have come up smelling of roses.

Extra sh*t with wings

Not everybody handles bad news quite so well. Starbucks’ stores in New York were recently in the news. Rumour had it that they were tiring of lingering latte-sippers who used their free WiFi and hogged the toilets. Not to mention people who just dropped in for a little light relief, without purchasing a drink. So they were shutting their toilets in all 190 of their stores. Avoid the venti (the largest cup size) said Canada’s Globe and Mail. Just a ‘wee’ change, said the New York Post, lapsing into Britspeak, and continuing in that vein with ‘Bucks shuts loos, a subhead worthy of an English redtop. Bad news, then. So how do you turn it into good news? Not easily. Because some bad news simply can’t be flipped, and the best you can do is trot out a denial. Which is exactly what Starbucks did, issuing a statement making it clear that they weren’t closing the toilets. The reports, they said were ‘completely false’. In larger stores with two restrooms (how euphemistic that sounds to UK ears) they were converting one into a storeroom. But the damage was done. And worse, it came just days before World Toilet Day, when glitzy celebs help highlight the fact that most people in the world don’t have decent sanitation. Some bad news you just can’t flush out of the system.

Flying high

The thing about bad news is that there’s just no way of telling how the cards will fall. Sometimes, bad news has the strangest of outcomes. When a Ryanair plane slid off the runway in Glasgow, bookings went up. When one of their planes landed at the wrong airport in Northern Ireland, bookings went up. Why? Because people saw the Ryanair logo, and thought I must book a flight. Bizarre, but true. The key thing here, however, was that nobody got hurt. When an Air Florida plane crashed in the Potomac in Washington in 1982, killing all but four passengers, it spelled the end for the airline. Just as the Lockerbie crash of 1988 did for Pan Am, which closed its doors and cross-checked for the last time in the early 1990s. Some bad news you can never recover from.

My bad

Like the wise man said, stuff happens. What matters is what you do next. So how do you deal with it in the context of your everyday marketing? Well for a start you could:
  • Act immediately – don’t wait for it to blow over (it won’t).
  • Tell the story before somebody else does. If you get in there first, you set the context, frame the story and limit the damage. And a proactive approach looks more honest – because it is.
  • Devise a crisis-management plan well in advance, so you’ve got a clear course of action and a checklist drawn up long before the heat of battle.
  • Don’t deny it – even if you think you can get away with it. Sooner or later, the details will come out, and do much more damage.
  • Look for positive angles and outcomes. There’s almost always a way of turning a negative story around.
And lastly, do more than anybody could reasonably expect from you to fix the problem. Make your response the story, not the original problem. In other words, do an Apple. Find out more: