What small businesses can learn from how Goop handled an onslaught of negative PR.
8 min read
Chief Content Officer Elise Loehnen calls it the Goop inflection point: when people go from mocking the wellness and lifestyle brand to counting themselves among its fans.
It’s not always an easy point to reach.
The company, founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow in 2008, has been the subject of a barrage of controversy over the years, stemming mostly from a public perception of exclusivity, missteps with pseudoscientific language and debate over some of its product claims. (An investigation into Goop’s infamous jade and quartz eggs that claimed vaginal health benefits resulted in a $145,000 settlement.)
But the company has attempted to take control of its narrative. In January, it launched The Goop Lab, a six-part Netflix docuseries on topics ranging from psychedelics to psychics. The series aims to paint a fuller picture of the company than the polarizing headlines it has been subjected to in the media, says Loehnen. “Instead of defining [the company] based on headlines only, people actually watch the episode, particularly critics and people in the media. They watched the episode, and then they responded to it. So I think people got a much fuller picture of what we’re actually about.”
Goop has beefed up its regulatory team, including hiring a number of lawyers and adding scientists in product development, and took a closer look at its language through the lens of compliance. “We didn’t realize, for example, that when someone talked about their experience with the jade egg — that was a claim,” says Loehnen. “We just didn’t have that in-house expertise. So now we are much, much more buttoned up.”
Though Loehnen says she doesn’t think the company has done anything differently, it’s clear Goop has had to course-correct in a few areas after going viral with a negative connotation. But this idea doesn’t just affect large companies — controversy can swirl around the corner store in your small town, the mom and pop business on your block or the medium-sized firm in your city.
If you’re a small business owner, here’s how to take control of your company’s narrative in the event of a crisis — and what to do if things start to balloon.
Know that your community matters
Going viral for something negative may seem like it’s only something that happens to large companies, but it’s all relative and can apply to any business size. Everything depends on context. Let’s say a coffee shop in a small town was the source of a major faux pas and then handled it poorly — for that business, going viral might mean negative thoughts from everyone in the community, especially since word-of-mouth travels fast.
“If you’re a small business and something goes ‘viral’ against you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to go internationally [viral],” says Melissa Agnes, founder and CEO of the Crisis Ready Institute. “It just means that the people who matter to your business are hearing about the news, and it’s casting negative perception and doubt on your brand.”
Of course, not everyone’s going to like you or your business, and that’s okay. Not everyone’s going to agree with you either, and that’s even better, says Paul A. Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth College. “Finding your audience through that — the people who really are engaged and excited about what you have to say — is a big part of growing up as an entrepreneur.”
Prepare before it happens
“One of the most important things in handling a PR crisis doesn’t happen when you have the PR crisis,” says Karen Leland, author of Watercooler Wisdom: How Smart People Prosper in the Face of Conflict, Pressure and Change. “It happens long before the PR crisis.”
In the event of a crisis, it’s often difficult to think clearly, so it’s important to already have a foundation in place so you don’t lose control of your company’s narrative. To do that, you’ll need to plan out actionable steps and start filling in as many unknowns as possible. Thinking through your crisis plan can make it a lot easier to put into practice when and if the time comes. It’s a similar idea to a fire escape plan, says Leland. After all, prevention is the best cure.
One way to start is with scenario planning. Ask yourself: What are the predictable breakdowns here, given my business? And what are the standard operating procedures I can put in place to address a problem early rather than have it blow up into a crisis? Process breakdowns and confusion are what will likely upset your audience most in a crisis, so it’s vital to train your staff to react in the situations you highlight during this process — what they say to clients can make a huge difference in the trajectory of the problem. That’s because most PR crises are about emotion. “One person can cause a crisis for your company,” says Leland.
Team diversity is vital for countless reasons; one benefit is the invaluable different perceptions and lenses you’ll get on a specific subject matter. Whenever you’re about to roll out something new, you need a team that will ask themselves how different aspects could be misconstrued or misunderstood, says Agnes. That could lead to mitigating issues you may have otherwise been blind to.
“It’s really about charting out your predictable service crises, then figuring out which behaviors and actions are going to reduce the risk of them becoming a crisis and which behaviors will increase the risk,” says Leland. “Doing nothing and ignoring the problem always increases the risk.”
Take responsibility and make people feel heard
Seventy-five percent of PR crises wouldn’t blow up if businesses took preventative steps, says Leland — but for the other 25 percent, it’s likely going to happen no matter what. The level of damage often depends on the handling of the situation from there.
At its core, taking responsibility doesn’t mean saying things you don’t mean, says Leland. It means being proactive and transparent by way of open communication. For example: Here’s where we are, here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know and here’s what we’re going to do to resolve the situation. And here’s our most reasonable expectation about when we can update you on the unknowns, and either way, we’re going to get back to you by that time and give you an update on where we are.
Let’s say your team receives 10 negative complaints — maybe it’ll end there, and you’ll be able to address those complaints directly and move forward. But how do you know whether in the next hour you’ll receive 10 times that amount? One relatively reliable predictor for whether something will go viral is if it checks three boxes, says Agnes: emotionally compelling, relatable and easy to share. “If you can train your team to start looking at things through that lens, then you’re training them to be able to stop a negative escalation before it happens,” says Agnes.
As for how to counter? It’s important to remember that emotion can rarely be overcome with logic, says Agnes: “When something is highly emotionally relatable, you can’t beat it with the truth because people care about what they feel. They don’t care about what you tell them.” There’s a formula for responding to something emotionally charged, and it starts with validating the audience’s emotions. No matter whether it’s true in actuality, it’s likely true in your audience’s minds, and they need to feel heard and understood, says Agnes. The next step is relating to that emotion, and the final step is proving what you’ll do to fix the situation and prevent it from happening again in the future.
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When Goop Went Viral for the Wrong Reasons, the Company Took These Steps to Rebuild Its Reputation
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