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How to deal with the possibility of bad PR at your event

Last updated July 30th, 2014

by Laura Pearson-Smith
If you are reading this article at the stage where bad PR is only a possibility for you, then you’re lucky. For most, an event goes wrong out of nowhere, and they haven’t prepared a strategy to cope.
Event PR is a learned skill. If you know how to organise an event properly, cover all bases and strategise for conceivable risks, you have already gone a long way to making sure that your event runs smoothly and doesn’t generate bad PR. For example, make sure you know your team well and can trust them; that you’ve done a thorough risk assessment; and that you are using good suppliers with a proven history of good service. Good organisation is your best defence against the possibility of bad event PR. However, the most shocking event PR disasters that I have witnessed have come from the unexpected- nothing could have been done by you to prevent them.
When this happens, there are several things you can do to limit the damage. For example, recently, at a Scottish awards ceremony with celebrity guests, the organiser participated in a physical fight with another guest in front of the whole room. The video of this fight went viral, and the fight was covered by all the major UK newspapers- titles the awards ceremony itself would never have gained coverage in if the fight had never happened. If this was your event, there was nothing you could have done to predict this unpredictable behaviour by one of your team, or the amounts of alcohol being consumed; but there are several things you could have done (which they did not) to limit how bad and how wide spread the results were.
Despite damning video evidence, the organisers would not accept the blame. This was one of their main mistakes. Whether it was their fault or not, if more or less undeniable evidence is spreading like wild fire, you need to accept full responsibility and apologise for the behaviour. Their denials, and pleads for sympathy interviews on TV, only fuelled the fire against them. Had they immediately during the event, and after the event, acknowledged what had occurred, accepted full responsibility for it and issued a statement of extreme regret for their behaviour, it would not have been as big a news story as it became. You cannot gloss over or try to cover up a major event disaster like this. You need to quickly dissolve the situation, and then accept responsibility for it. If the bad event PR is likely to lead to press coverage, you should bring in a specialist media image publicist immediately, to help you draft your public statement and navigate this rocky terrain.
For many smaller events such as corporate ones, the main negative impacts of the event going wrong will hit your client. As with any event, your first duty is to your client- so handling their concerns should be your first port of call. A couple of years ago, a newly opened seafood restaurant invited a group of press and bloggers to their opening party. Everyone who ate the oysters being served came down with food poisoning. The restaurant and the PR tried to gloss over this and deny it being possible; when in fact, the best thing to have done would have been to have accepted responsibility, state that they are brand new so using new suppliers, that they trusted the supplier but will not be using them again, and apologise. Had they done that, people would have forgotten about the incident long ago, and their further examples of excellent service would have taken the forefront in guest’s minds. However, because they denied it, it angered those attending and they still talk about it now. Whether they believed they were at fault or not, the number of guests complaining about the same thing, made the guests right and them wrong.
Truth, and accepting responsibility go a long way to appeasing people. There is also no real news story in it. News is fuelled by the excitement of blame- if you take that away, there is little left to write about. It also allows your client to repair their business image in the best way possible- by doing what they do best (good service) in clear open air without the murky cloud of deceit hanging over them.

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