Tips for handling bad publicity: Lessons from Hollywood

Turning frowns upside down

The volatility of public opinion can have drastic effects on small businesses. It’s estimated that Americans will only tell an average of nine people about good experiences, but will tell 16 people about poor experiences. This willingness to share bad experiences is only amplified by the ease and accessibility of social media and public review platforms. And that’s why it’s crucial to have a strategy for handling bad publicity.

You don’t have to look far to find an example of bad publicity affecting one’s public image— especially if you turn your lens to Hollywood. A recent example that illustrates this point is the “All the Money in the World” reshoot situation with Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams.

Quick recap: Michelle Williams & Mark Walhberg

Because of the sexual harassment allegations surrounding actor Kevin Spacey, director Ridley Scott decided to re-film scenes for his new movie, “All the Money in the World,” with Christopher Plummer replacing Spacey. The scenes that needed reshooting would naturally require the other stars, Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams, for continuity.

This meant that Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams would need to do additional work that was not previously agreed to in their original contracts. In other words, this was more work for those two stars. As a result, each would need to receive compensation for this added work.

The issue was not the reshoot but rather, the disparity in pay between actors Wahlberg and Williams, who are both represented by the same agency, WME.

Wahlberg received roughly $1.5 million for his additional time, and Williams received less than $1,000 for hers. Further, it’s reported by USA Today that Wahlberg refused to approve Plummer as Spacey’s replacement until a seven-figure payout was secured.

When the issue came to light, the public criticism on social media was immediate.


Wahlberg’s personal brand took a massive hit, and he had to take quick actions to remedy the situation. As a result, he donated the $1.5 million he earned for the re-filming to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and released the following statement:

“Over the last few days my reshoot fee for “All the Money in the World” has become an important topic of conversation. I 100 percent support the fight for fair pay and I’m donating the $1.5 million to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund in Michelle Williams’ name.”

Four tips for handling bad publicity

While small businesses might not operate under the same microscope as Hollywood celebrities, they do face serious ramifications from bad publicity. Because bad publicity can drown a small business, it’s important to have a plan in place to handle issues if they arise.

These actions can help:

  1. Take precautions to avoid common issues in your industry.

  2. Act quickly.

  3. Find a resolution.

  4. Acknowledge mistakes.

Ready to take a closer look?

1. Take precautions to avoid common issues in your industry

One of the best ways for handling bad publicity is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Take some time to list out the common areas in your business that face the most public scrutiny and find opportunities to focus trainings and procedures around those potential weak spots.

For instance, if you operate a restaurant the areas of your business that have the highest propensity for bad publicity are:

  • Quality of your food.
  • Timeliness of your meals.
  • Cleanliness of your restaurant.
  • Quality of your customer service.

Knowing that these areas are often the most scrutinized in your industry, you can take additional steps to avoid issues and turn those potential pitfalls into strengths.

Handling Bad Publicity Restaurant

Additionally, below are some other general tips for businesses to avoid PR disasters.

Seems like common sense, right? But if and when things go awry …

2. Act quickly

If your small business is handling bad publicity, it’s vital to quickly confront the source of the problem … do not ignore it. The longer you wait, the more damage that negative PR can cause.

Taking a timely approach to handling bad publicity shows that you care about feedback, value customers, and take complaints seriously. You can help yourself respond quickly to bad publicity by setting up alerts for your brand name and reviews on popular review sites like Facebook, Google, and Yelp.

3. Find a resolution

For most small business owners, bad publicity comes in the form of negative reviews. It’s estimated that a single negative review can cost you roughly 30 customers. However, your small business can combat negative reviews by responding in a thoughtful, personal, and resolving manner.

While it’s important to respond to negative publicity quickly, it’s also important to respond with a solution.

If you do decide to respond to a negative review, it’s important to make sure you don’t do it in a combative manner or resort immediately to reimbursement. Understand the underlying issue, speak to the individual over the phone, and find a common solution that appeases both parties.
After finding a resolution, look at what your business can do to prevent the issue from recurring.

Repeated issues — especially with the same customer — can lead to larger problems.

4. Acknowledge mistakes

Nobody likes to admit that they made a mistake, but in the PR world, taking responsibility and showing accountability can be the best move.

In fact, the humanity of making a mistake can help build rapport with customers.


After all, we’ve all made mistakes.

When you face a PR disaster, take a step back and look objectively at your role in the situation.

If you determine that it was, in fact, an error or omission on the part of your brand, take responsibility and issue a sincere and honest apology acknowledging your mistake and providing recourse.

Another lesson learned

In 2015, Taylor Swift announced a boycott of Apple Music because they were providing a free trial of its streaming service without paying artists for the music played during the free trial.

In a prime example of handling bad publicity, Apple responded quickly on Twitter by issuing an apology to Taylor Swift and other artists, admitting the brand’s error, and offering to start paying all artists played during the trial period. This exemplifies a brand that acknowledged its error and found a solution to mitigate the damage from the negative publicity.

Summing up

Life as a small business owner can be difficult enough, without the added stress of handling bad publicity. But with a plan in hand, you’ll be better prepared to deal with negative sentiment if necessary. To recap:

  1. Work to avoid common issues that plague your industry. This is about taking a proactive approach to position your business as a brand that breeds positive sentiment.
  2. Act fast to respond to negative publicity. Ignoring critics and naysayers might be your worst approach.
  3. Find a resolution. Make sure you understand the underlying issue, and then work to find a satisfactory solution.
  4. Acknowledge mistakes. If you made one, own up to it sincerely and with a solution in hand.

Keep the tips above in mind when handling bad publicity, and you can put your business in a better position to succeed.

Image by: bark / CC BY