A headline released in April of 2017 by Cosmopolitan stated, “How This Woman Lost 44 Pounds Without *ANY* Exercise.”
While this is an eye-opening headline that might cause many people to read it without hesitation, especially in a world driven by body image, the actual message found within was filled with controversy.
Aspects of this woman’s journey did include subscribing to a diet plan that was on the market, but it turns out the woman had a rare form of cancer that prevented her to physically exercise. The woman was thankful for the weight loss, going so far to say that she was never happy with her body shape and weight. After her cancerous diagnosis and several surgeries, she found herself physically unable to exercise. She changed her eating habits by following a certain diet and was able to lose the weight without exercising.
Unfortunately, the headline held a problematic tone as it baited readers into thinking some secret process to weight loss lay within the article. This was not entirely the case as it turns out the cancer played a major role in her lack of exercise. Even though the diet was a key factor in her weight loss, the headline and article, was perceived as a promotion of cancer as a weight loss tool.
The headline was changed within an hour of its publication with no other words or comments from Cosmopolitan or its parent company, Hearst Communications.
What steps can be taken next to change the public’s perception of the entire ordeal?
Certain steps can help alleviate the issues that arose from the headline. Alleviation should not be the only goal in this particular case as the consumer base and public perception is essential is repairing the damage done form the headline. This plan consists of five steps:
Step One: Accept responsibility
Step Two: Genuine apology and take action
Step Three: Retraction and Editorial
Step Four: Social Media backlash preparation
Step Five: Transparency moving forward
Step One: Accept Responsibility
One of the largest problems that plagues effective PR crises is failing to accept responsibility for a given mistake.
With this idea in mind, it is essential that responsibility for the problem is accepted in full. This needs to be done with a genuine sense of acceptance.
Do not try to cover up the issue as that will only cause more issues and problems. Admitting that a mistake was made is another essential step in making proper reparations. While accepting responsibility and admitting that a mistake was made, it is pivotal that it is all said and perceived with an empathetic approach. If none of those steps are done with genuine empathy, then it will seem like everything was being done with little or no care and that it is all a formality rather than a necessity bred from care. Doing this with a positive and regrettable attitude is essential so that the public can see the care of the company.
Step Two: Genuine Apology and Taking Action
One of the most important steps towards making positive reparations over the mistake is a genuine apology. This ties in with the idea of embracing true empathy. Being genuinely sorry is a crucial ideal that will resonate well with consumers across all platforms.
Once the apology has been manifested (enacting the apology will take place during step three of this plan), preferably naturally, it is time to take action. Passive aggression is often considered a bane when approaching a crisis management issue, so in this case, it is best to be as proactive as possible. Being proactive does not necessarily mean actively pursuing all possible angles of reparation. Instead, find the best option for each situation. In this instance, being proactive towards solving the problem leads to our next three steps.
Step Three: Retraction and Editorial
The best course of action for apology is through a retraction and an editor’s note in the magazine, website, and on social media.
The original headline was what caused the most turmoil from the public, so it makes sense that the change in the headline should not be a subtle and silent affair. Make sure it is actively known that the headline has been changed. This is where the genuine apology and proactive steps from earlier in the plan come into play. In the editor’s note (this can be from the actual editor or somebody else within the company that holds a high station), make sure it is known that the company, the author, and the editors are genuinely sorry for the message that was conveyed. Let the public know that it was never the intention of Cosmopolitan to insinuate that cancer was a positive facet of life, regardless of the outcome. Apologize again for the insensitive tone of the headline and announce why the headline has been changed.
This is where is might be prudent to rewrite, or possibly even remove, the original article. While the headline was the main issue at hand, the overall tone of the article also posed issues. Depending on the severity of the backlash from the public, the best course of action might be to rewrite the article or remove it entirely. Changing the tone and content of the writing along with the change of the headline could be the correct stepping stone to appease the public.
Step Four: Social Media Backlash
Even though everything has been done to apologize and change the article and headline that caused the issue, there will still be social media backlash before and after the changes. This is to be expected with the current state of the world and its love of technology and social media. Certain steps are crucial to help contain the spreading fire of social media.
First, accept the fact that there will be social media backlash. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms will have people raging over the incident. Some of the major backlash already seen against the headline has happened because a post was made by Cosmopolitan on Twitter.
Once it has been accepted, it is time to assign a social media team that will monitor some of the highly trafficked posts that garner attention. By preparing a preset list of responses regarding the incident (which are all genuine and apologetic), the team can work quickly to help quell any large fires that start spreading.
Another team, or possibly the social media team, should also keep an eye on news organizations that might publish articles regarding the incident. The team can contact those news organizations with information regarding the retraction and editor’s note. By commenting on the situation, the reparation remains proactive.
Having good preparation and an acceptance of social media backlash will alleviate some of the mob mentality of people on the Internet.
Step Five: Transparency
After all of the previous steps have been completed, the best course of action is to remain open and honest about everything. Even though this ties into being genuine in the apology, it is also prevalent in this case. Never say, “no comment” when asked to comment on the situation. Continue to be open with why the changes were made and how apologetic the entire company is at the mistake.
Follow up with the woman about which the article was written. Make sure she understands how genuinely sorry Cosmopolitan is regarding the entire affair. Ensure the woman, and the public, that this kind of thing will never happen again by putting forth a plan for future headline and article edits. This plan can be decided amongst the appropriate people, but proof needs to be provided to the public that this is an isolated incident that left plenty of room for learning. Write a secondary article as a follow up that perhaps talks about the detriments of cancer and how to stay healthy when faced with a health crisis such as that. Give a donation to a charitable organization or medical research. Any step towards understanding the mistake and making amends is preferential to silence.
Everybody makes mistakes. Writers, editors, the public: all human. Rather than staying quiet about the entire affair, follow the steps of this plan to help assuage the public. Do not do this because it is the right thing to do but rather because there is a genuine care for the mistake. By following the steps of this plan, it will not only help show that Cosmopolitan cares about the public’s opinion, but it also shows that it is possible to make mistakes and that they can be amended.
Cosmopolitan has always been a positive force for health, body image, and happiness. There is no better way to show it than by following the steps of this plan and helping lessen the blowback from an accidental, isolated incident.