The Court of Public Opinion


What if you woke up one morning to find out you had enemies, lots of them, and you were in for a life-or-death battle? A reporter had said something negative about you in the newspaper or on TV, or someone with an axe to grind had started a rumor about you via Twitter or some other online channel. Or, some greedy manipulator with a [usually financial] agenda had launched his campaign, and it was having harmful effects on your professional interests.

If you are a business or individual whose success in the world depends upon your good reputation and a loyal constituency (and that pretty much includes everyone), then listen up. And please share this with anyone who’s under public attack.

During the past year, I have been approached by four organizations who were suffering from being on the wrong side of public opinion, and they wanted me to “fix” it. Make it be a bad dream. Put the toothpaste back in the tube. Change history. Get the horses back in the barn. Convince people not to believe the lies that had been circulating about them.

The scenario plays out like this. Someone approaches me weeks, maybe months, after the damage has been done, much too late, and says something like, (a) The city council meeting is next Thursday and hundreds of angry residents are planning on showing up, or (b) a customer posted a complaint on Twitter and it’s gone viral, or (c) a newspaper reporter printed a story about how we cheated someone and they didn’t call us for our opinion, or (d) insert your image tarnishing situation here.

As you may know, one of the roles of public relations is to help shape public opinion. When we refer to the “court of public opinion,” we’re talking about how the news media (and Twitter and other channels of information distribution) have the power to influence the support  of or sway the opinions of  vast numbers of people in political decisions or court cases. These days, public opinion can be shaped on behalf of any self-serving agenda, thanks to the loads of new channels and “trolls” and frivolous lawsuits and the innate human tendency for “condemnation prior to investigation.”  Click here to read an excellent article about the phenomenon of this “alternative system of dispute resolution and justice.”

The adage is, “I’d rather be tried in the court of law than in the court of public opinion.” The mob mentality is brutally unfair. To see it in action, watch a Zombie movie.

Trouble is, most times, once the opposition has managed to inspire the torrent of negative public opinion, the problem can’t be fixed by use of reason, even if the rumors are false.You just have to suck it up, correct any problems, gird your loins and wait for the storm to pass. If that doesn’t work, you may want to consider changing your name and moving to Guam. If that doesn’t work, write a tell-all book about sin and redemption.

When you’ve been slammed in the face by the fallacy-filled wall of woe that is public recrimination, you realize the shoulda coulda wouldas of your situation. You admit, with deep regret, that the only thing that might have saved you is the public relations program you ought to have implemented from the beginning, but that, in your sweet, bulletproof naievté, you thought you could do without.

But, rejoice! This has NOT happened to you yet, and you have a new lease on life. You’re George Bailey, there’s no Mr. Potter, and Clarence has talked you off the bridge. Now’s the time to incorporate a new way of thinking into how you do business.

Install a public relations program

Public relations is a function on your organizational chart, as is accounting, sales, legal and human resources. Most large organizations know this, but many of the entrepreneurs just entering the formal business world do not. When resources are scarce, PR mistakenly gets booted out in the cold. Know this: PR maintains the perimeter while the folks inside the castle get the paperwork done. Whether you do it yourself, appoint someone to the task or outsource the task, PR needs to be running behind the scenes at all times, greasing the skids for sales, clearing pathways, educating your audiences, working with the media, launching pre-emptive campaigns and keeping the wolves at bay. When you’re assigning duties in the PR box on your org chart, include media relations, opinion research, white papers, articles, content development, speech writing, community relations, employee relations, government relations, customer relations and any other “relations” with groups upon which your success or failure depends. If it’s only you in the business and a couple of interns, then read a book or two about public relations, particularly on the topics of reputation and crisis management. Read my blogs and take my online courses. Get smart about it. Don’t assume PR something you can live without. You can’t.

Conduct ongoing research

Perception is reality. Get a handle on how you’re perceived by the outside world by doing periodic research. Don’t skip this. Otherwise, you’re operating in a vacuum and all of your assumptions about your product’s viability are false. Discover the “touchy feely” aspects of your business, products and services, because that’s the place from where humans operate. If you have blinders on, then you’ll miss the gathering of the barbarians at the gate. You may also fail to see opportunities to leverage the perceptions of others to fulfill an important consumer need. Get out there. Ask around. Conduct surveys. Host focus groups and community “town hall” sessions. Be perceived as an entity that listens to, and serves, its constituencies.

Prepare for battle

As you ponder your overall public relations plan, make a list of possible worst case scenarios. What kinds of things could happen inside and outside of your control? (This is your S.W.O.T. analysis.) What if, for example, a customer slips and falls outside of your office? This is always a danger for brick and mortar businesses who fail to shovel and salt their sidewalks. Which threats can you prevent? What if someone in your organization creates a scandal? How will you react in a state of emergency? Remember the Tylenol poisoning incident in 1982? The case study was required reading during my PR college days as a situation that was handled beautifully and with great integrity. We call this part of public relations “crisis communications.” It behooves you to have a plan in place for how you will address all negative situations ethically, honestly and effectively. Know who your haters are, if you have any.

Gather and inspire your supporters

Who is on your side? Do you have good, open relationships with the people who influence your success? Identify your tribes, then engage them regularly with communication and face-to-face activity. Don’t ignore your “family.” Your job is to cultivate and nurture warm relationships. Keep them informed of your wonderfulness, of the solutions you provide, of the expertise and talent you have, of your sincere desire to be of service. Always be educating, from day one. That way, when the rats come knocking, your publics will stand by your side and not be as susceptible to false information. Never take for granted the people who believe in you and who will stand by your side in times of trouble.

Be first, be fast

Realize that when a crisis situation occurs, the press is usually at the scene before you even know what’s going on. In the Tylenol crisis, the PR guy got a call in the middle of the night from a reporter who wanted a statement. He says the reporter knew more about what was going on than he did. The rule of thumb in a crisis is to be the first resource of information for the media. Get to them immediately, before an uninformed witness or neighbor (who is reacting with fear) can weigh in. If you don’t yet know exactly what’s going on, tell the media that you are aware of the situation and that you’re doing everything you can to investigate and get all the facts. Then, get back to them with timely, regular updates. Better journalists come to you for the facts than the angry mob down the street.

Every time a bell rings, a business is saved from the ravages of ignorance and ill preparation. If you want to consider your public relations outlook for the coming year, please reach out to me for an in-person, full- or half-day planning session.

Meanwhile, in the comment section, please share your experience with negative public perception or questions you might have about protecting yourself.