Image credit: Jason Rogers

Image credit: Jason Rogers

On Sept. 12, the investment publication, Barron’s, published a negative story about Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce powerhouse, and as a result Alibaba’s communications director appeared to go a bit nutty. The 3,000+ word story, Alibaba: Why It Could Fall 50% Further, painted a disastrous future for the company filled with tumbling stocks, mismanaged acquisitions and allegations of illegal activity based on a white paper issued by the Chinese government. And it wasn’t published without a bit of snark. In fact, the story concludes with an editorial comment from writer Jonathan Laing, “…gaudy financial reports can only work for so long before reality intrudes. This hard lesson figures to be driven home to Ma and his trusting investors in the coming years, and it won’t be pretty.”

Everyone from CEO Jack Ma to the hopeful intern working the mail room was probably angered by the story and much of that anger was likely directed at the company’s PR team, which failed to put the brakes on the story, if they even knew about it. As a result, the company flinched publicly by having Jim Wilkinson, Alibaba’s senior vice president of international corporate affairs, pen a 1,900-word letter to Barron’s editor and president Edwin Finn, attacking Laing’s reporting and Barron’s credibility. Bad move. The letter’s issuance has not resulted in a rash of sympathy reporting or corrections on Barron’s behalf, but rather a host of new headlines questioning the response tactic.

The PR industry bible, PR Week, is currently running an interactive feature on Wilkinson’s response titled, Your call: Alibaba’s 1,900-word response to Barron’s – strong or way too long? And the story’s subhead takes a fathom deeper, Alibaba Group’s communications leader penned a lengthy response to a highly critical Barron’s article. Did he go overboard? I should think so. Way overboard. In fact, I think he is likely drifting at sea at the moment. Yet the question remains – what sort of response from Alibaba would have been appropriate? What does your company do when a leading, national publications punches it in the face?

Here are some suggestions for responding to critical media stories about your brand:

  1. Take a breath. Deep breathing is a key response to hostile situations, as slow, deep breaths increase the supply of oxygen to your brain and help you think more clearly. Bad press, even financial news, is not the end of the world.
  2. Evaluate the potential damage to the brand before you slam the journalist who wrote the story that has you so vexed. Is it dire enough to make it worth jeopardizing a relationship with a national publication with a lengthy, emotional response?
  3. Analyze the facts. Are the facts/data incorrect? Or are there errors? If there are errors, by all means, request a correction. If there are perceived errors, or perceived slights deal with it by keeping your cool. Emotion destroys common sense, so avoid an emotional response, in spite of the emotions being expressed by your colleagues. Rather. . .
  4. Issue a simple statement to the media, correcting the perceptions put into play by the journalist in question. When a dramatic story gets published the media loves to play piggyback on follow up stories. Provided your company has given those media outlets piggybacking on the original story talking points designed to counter the original story there is a very good chance that those messages will show up in the follow up stories. Ultimately the follow up stories tend to question the original story. Done right you should never have to reach out to the journalist that originally threw your company under the bus as you can achieve the same, or better results by completely avoiding him/her.
  5. If none of the above works, get a bottle of single malt and dive in. The longer you and your executive team sleep off that hangover the better. By the time you emerge from said hangover you will see that the American attention span is so short that the story is no longer being discussed on the Interwebs. And quite possibly your social cred has improved, because the old saying, “there’s no such thing as bad press” is actually true, especially in today’s schizophrenic culture.

There you have it — crisis communications 101 for Alibaba’s crew a few days too late. It’s not too late for you and your company however. Having a crisis plan in place to address bad press (and executive anger) ahead of time is the only way to truly stem the tide with executive buy-in. Don’t do it alone though, as you risk getting killed by your executives – instead bring in an expert like me to play bad cop.