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Avoiding Viral: Minimizing the Snowball Potential of Bad News
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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Getting your message to "go viral" is all the rage these days. Marketers at Dove Soap and Kmart, among many others, have been especially good at it. Even public relations professionals are interested in getting their messages viral, especially those messages that are good news stories that enhance the brand and reputation of their organization, like this one at the University of Nebraska.

While everyone is concerned with creating positive viral content, an equal and almost more important concern should be in preventing certain things from going viral in the first place. Viral messages can either create advocate publics who like and desire your brand or it can birth activist publics, who sit in disgust of your brand and may try to cause damage to it.

Examples of bad viral are obvious fakes like the genetically modified chicken at KFC or the seemingly routine stories like the one on GE on how little taxes they pay. Other organizations have niche audiences that have things go viral in their own circles that then explode in a matter of hours or days — like the decision by the Susan B. Komen Foundation to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011. Bad viral for the Komen Foundation, good for Planned Parenthood.

By following a few key principles, good PR folks are out there preventing many bad news stories from going viral all time the time. This is what they do:

Environmental Scanning. This doesn’t apply just to reading news clips or monitoring social media interactions (which of course you should do). A good PR pro is acutely aware of what’s happening inside their organization and recognizes when some information may be of concern. They identify it, recommend a communication strategy, and execute.

First to the chalkboard. Remember the kid in school who got his hand up first or was up writing the answer on the chalkboard before anyone else got the sticker? Same thing applies. Except the sticker is your good reputation, and you get to keep it. The U.S Navy did a good job of this recently when lead was discovered in base day care center water fountains. The Navy prevented what could’ve been a viral story by informing parents and news media before anyone else did. If you’re first to put the information out to the right audiences you greatly reduce the chances of information going viral and increase your chances of retaining control of your narrative.

Inoculation. Whether you intend or suspect someone else intends to release bad news that you’ve deemed has viral potential it might be worth considering inoculation or expectation management. This is often seen in the financial world when some large company is expecting to announce either good or bad news. This is a game that should be played carefully; putting out a stream of “you’re not going to like the news that’s about to come out” will have negative consequences regardless and may not completely avoid a negative viral campaign.

Avoid lying — no, never lie.  All PR people are responsible for being ethical — outright lies are almost always discovered, and in this world of information sharing, the exposed information can go viral in hours. If you have bad news, out with it — and if you can, be first to the chalkboard.

We all want to latch onto the viral craze, and in many cases it’s a great way to manage and extend your brand, but never forget, going viral can go the other way, too.

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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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