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Just (don’t) Do It: You Can’t Fight the Streisand Effect

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all we had to do to get people to stop writing bad news about us was to ask them not to?  Better yet: threaten to sue them—that will put the fear of God in them, right? Wrong.
While digging into the updated version of Groundswell this week by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li, I was reminded that the groundswell doesn’t like to be bossed.  As a matter of fact, if you try and censor the groundswell, you will make it stronger. The book used several well-known incidents to illustrate this phenomenon including photographer Kenneth Adleman’s famous go-round with singer Barbara Streisand over including her house in a group of aerial pictures he took of the California coastline.  Streisand not only lost her attempt at blocking the publication of the picture (in the name of privacy), her whoop-de-do gave the story, the photo, and Adelman’s career a real boost.  The book also used the well-documented case of Digg and the DVD decoding story of 2007. Even though Digg originally bowed to pressure from Hollywood, the groundswell didn’t, and Digg finally gave up trying to delete stories on the subject, defying a legal order to do so.
Bad news travels faster, and has more power than good news. You need a bad news strategy.  You can fight it all you want, or you can “hunker down” and disappear.  Both will produce the same bad results: prolonging the mitigation and strengthening the severity of your crisis.  Here are some primary elements for your bad news strategy, using some of my favorite basketball coaching idioms.
  • Fail to plan; plan to fail.  There’s nothing more unsettling than trying to handle a crisis on the fly.  Dealing with bad news is sometimes like playing “whac-a-mole.”  If you pound one piece down, another pops up in an unexpected place. When it comes to crisis communications, I highly recommend Jeff Ansell’s When the Headline is You for plotting original strategy. His model is easily tailored to any organizational culture. Also, for strategy, I would look at the crisis management  sections in The Now Revolution by Jay Baer and Amber Naslund, and David Meerman Scott’s Real-Time Marketing and PR. If you don’t have a dashboard set up to monitor your brand online, do it today. If your needs are greater than what you can handle in-house, hire a company to help.
  • Be quick, but don’t hurry (John Wooden).  If you plan ahead (see #1), you can harness the power of real-time to steer the messages.  Getting out in front of bad news is essential. Communicate with the groundswell. Acknowledge the situation, show you are working on it, talk about your plans to fix it, and be available to keep in touch.
  • Just go with the flow. If you open the floodgate, too much information can either offend, or create an appetite for more. One of the biggest mistakes made recently by Rep. Anthony Weiner (besides his initial lying), was the fact that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut once he started talking. Emotion will fuel this. The more you talk (or write); the odds go up on screwing up.  Keep on message when you answer questions and make statements about the situation. See Jeff Ansell’s chapters on “how to admit bad news” and “crafting compelling messages” for help here.
  •  Go the distance.  Stay with the message through the duration of its life. Don’t think that because you talked about it once, it’s going away. Stay available. Also, keep watching your monitoring dashboard faithfully. Crisis management is a way of doing business, not a one-time event.
So, here’s your part.  From student-athletes getting kicked out of school to product recalls to nonprofit heads embezzling funds, bad news is out there. What suggestions would you add to the list of elements for a bad news strategy?
(shown above: the famous picture that launched the Streisand Effect. from Wikipedia.)