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Five top tips for handling negative media coverage

Tuesday, 15 May 2012 | By Michelle Hammond

feature-bad-press-thumbGetting bad press seems a bit unfair if you’re a start-up. You haven’t even got started yet and already there is a negative review of your product or service, or someone poking fun at your brand.


Alas, you cannot control what the media – or anyone else – writes about you, despite what some correspondence sent to StartupSmart suggests.


But your media antennae need to be switched on from day one if you are to ensure that your business isn’t severely damaged by a bad write-up.


The founders of mmMule are just one example of a start-up that was thrown off guard when a somewhat bizarre article appeared recently on US tech blog TechCrunch.


mmMule is a Sydney-based social travel network connecting locals who want items delivered with travellers or “mules” who can deliver them.


In return for delivery, travellers are rewarded with local travel experiences. The business was founded by Andrew Simpson, Avis Mulhall and Alan Mulhall.


In an article titled "Deliver the love with mmMule: Let strangers carry things to other places for you", TechCrunch writer John Biggs takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the service.


Biggs’ story – which is written in first person – features a mule who wanted a free tour of San Francisco “in exchange for taking a pound of cut heroin to my contact”, suggesting mmMule leaves itself open to drug couriering and other criminal activity.


“You can sign up for free and they don’t hassle you or nothing, and they don’t give your name to the cops, even if the cops ask for it. Sweet deal,” Biggs wrote.


Avis Mulhall was quick to comment on the article, setting up a fictional scenario in an attempt to highlight what the founders saw as the real value of mmMule.


Mulhall’s story centred on a soldier during World War Two, charged with the task of returning a watch to a woman whose husband put the request on mmMule before he was killed.


“No money ever changed hands… but [the mule] kept his word,” Mulhall wrote.


“It’s just amazing to me that something as simple as a website like mmMule could create such powerful stories.”


Mulhall’s comment sparked plenty of interest, with one reader describing Mulhall’s story as “even better than the first article”, before declaring, “I am totally a fan of Avis and mmMule”.


While this is one way to respond to a lukewarm write-up, there are other things you need to consider in order to protect your brand.


StartupSmart spoke to the experts about how to handle mediocre reviews.


1. Be prepared


Sydney-based entrepreneur Ryan Wardell says sites such as mmMule are always going to come up against this type of thing because “that’s just the nature of [their] business”.


“People will want to know how you prevent drugs and other illegal items being smuggled – make sure you’ve got a kickass comeback prepared,” Wardell says.


2. Don’t overreact


Jo Macdermott, founder and director of Next Marketing, says unfavourable media can be damaging to any business at any stage of a business lifecycle, not just start-ups.


“For a new business, it may mean that they never really get going. They may not have enough customer loyalty to weather the storm,” Macdermott admits.


“[But] there is a saying that there is no such thing as bad PR.”


According to Wardell, it’s important to remain calm and collected in these situations – like Mulhall – or risk drawing more attention to the unfavourable review.


“I think the average TechCrunch reader is bright enough to understand [the mmMule] article is tongue-in-cheek,” Wardell says.


3. Issue a response


According to Macdermott, it is always better to respond to bad reviews rather than not respond.


However, she encourages start-ups to keep their response short and to the point – whilst including as many facts as possible – but to leave the emotions out.


“I had a client just last week who wrote a two-page column in an engineering magazine,” she says.


“Two months later, a letter to the editor was published in the same publication, indicating that there were some errors of fact in the piece.”


“Whilst the letter to the editor person was in fact wrong, I recommended writing a short, one-line response back to the editor indicating as such, and providing a link to the client’s website where more information could be sought to clarify the point.”


4. Get creative


Wardell recommends getting in touch with the author of the offending article and sending them a follow-up piece.


In the case of mmMule, Wardell says the piece could be “something equally tongue-in-cheek”.


“If you do it right – it keeps the same tone and is funny as hell – it’ll get published. And you’ll get twice as much publicity and the opportunity to put the record straight,” Wardell says.


5. Wrap it up


Macdermott says while it’s important to respond to any bad reviews when they first pop up, it’s equally important to do it swiftly and then move on.


“I have the view that the response should be within 24 to 48 hours,” she says.


“If the business hasn’t had enough time to rectify the wrong, then at least acknowledge the issue, make note that it is a work in progress, and offer contact details for further questions.”