Yesterday, I wrote about how NBC has handled Keith Olbermann's departure from his show on MSNBC. Writing that story put me in mind of one of the hoary chestnuts of public relations strategy, which is to let sleeping dogs lie for some situations. Veteran PR folks are fond of refering to a minor flap as a "one-day story," meaning that you read about it in the newspaper today, but it disappears tomorrow. Unfortunately, the Internet has forever ended the technique of letting the storm blow over.
First, it was Google.
Stories that broke years ago are still easily found by searchers, whether they are looking for them or not. I have clients (they'd love not to be named here) where you can search on their company name and find (as search result #4 or #5, perhaps) a negative story about them. In some cases the story isn't even true—the classic situation where PR people counsel the on-day story approach.
The reasoning always went that some stories are so unfair that it is best "not to dignify them with a comment," the idea being that responding to the spurious charges just "kept the story alive" in the press. If the charges hit on Monday, then your response becomes the story on Tuesday, with even more people hearing about those falsehoods. Not responding, the reasoning goes, ended the negative publicity on day one. People would have to stop by the local library to go back and read about that story after Monday.
This clearly the thought process of a bygone era, now that we are in the age of Google, but I still sometimes hear well-meaning people provide this advice. I no longer hear this from too many PR professionals—most have figured out what we need to do differently—but I often hear business people parrot this advice because years ago they heard some smart person say it. We all need to accept that this world has changed.
Google can turn up any story on you, even years later. As they used to tell you in school, "It's part of your permanent record." Your only safe strategy is to respond so that when people find the story, they also find your response.
But Google isn't the only factor in this changed world. Social media has also made a huge difference, because blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube keep stories alive day after day. (I did this yesterday with the Keith Olbermann story.) As each pundit chips in with their opinion, more and more people hear about the original story. And when they do, they Google it even more to learn more details. If all that is out there is the negative charge, then people will make up their minds without your side of the story.
I know that responding is scary. It feels safer to let the story run its course without your comment. It feels like your comment can only "add fuel to the fire," and the truth is that you do run that risk. If you provide a ham-handed lame answer, expect to be pilloried. But the right answer can nip a crisis in the bud. The right answer can change people's minds. The right answer can protect your brand image. The right answer can rally your supporters to your defense.
No answer can't do any of those things, and leaves your reputation in the hands of your critics. You wouldn't do that with any other corporate asset, so it's time to stop talking about the "one-day" story.