Managing Controversy in the Media with an Adaptive Communication Strategy 




As PR & Comms professionals, it is our job to protect and enhance the reputation of our organisation, its products, and its leaders. This means detecting a reputation crisis before it even arrives. But what should you do when political agendas shift, and global events shine a negative light on your industry? PR & Comms teams need to be able to monitor controversy surrounding their CEO and understand how to adapt their communication strategy accordingly. 

What is in the CEO Index Report – UK? 

Onclusive recently launched a CEO Index that monitors the media coverage of the leading CEOs of US and European based companies. The CEO of BP, Bernard Looney, has topped the Index as the business leader with the most media mentions in the UK, with an impact score of four out of a possible ten. This is largely due to BP’s annual results in February, revealing a profit of £23bn – mirroring the worldwide trend of soaring energy prices linked to the war in Ukraine. Mr Looney’s pay package more than doubled to £10m, which certain media labelled as a “kick in the teeth” for consumers battling the cost-of-living crisis. 

BP CEO was closely followed by Wael Sawan (CEO of Shell plc), who has been mentioned regularly in the media regarding Shell’s record breaking 2022 profit of £32.2bn. 

As large oil and gas companies, BP and Shell’s leaders can expect to face regular criticism relating to the environmental impact, safety, financial performance, or overall management. However, with more scrutiny of energy companies in the wake of the climate crisis, the increased cost of living, and calls for greater windfall tax, many believe engaging with controversial publicity rests firmly on the shoulders of PR and Comms professionals. 

Controversy in the media can have a significant impact on a PR strategy 

The impact of bad publicity on a brand means you must adapt your communication strategy quickly to avoid adding fuel to the fire: 

  • Reputation damage

    Controversy can damage the reputation of a brand, individual or organisation, and make it more challenging to promote positive messages through PR efforts. A PR strategy will need shift its focus toward reputation management and damage control before promoting any positive messages. Otherwise, you risk the genuine messaging being tarnished by the haze of controversy around your brand. 

  • Changes in public perception

    CEOs act as the mouthpieces of many brands – general dissatisfaction with a CEO may have a knock-on effect on sentiment towards your brand overall. Focus on reshaping public perception with targeted statements and campaigns to address negative coverage. 

  • Shift in media coverage

    If controversy in trending, news outlets may begin focusing solely on negative stories instead of positive ones. As comms folks, this will make it harder for you to have press releases picked up that don’t fit the current news agenda towards your brand or industry. Your communication strategy may need to shift by changing the timing of your press releases or targeting more neutral publications. 

  • Increased scrutiny

    Controversy can also increase scrutiny from stakeholders and regulators. This increased scrutiny could make it more challenging to meet your commercial objectives due to push back from internal teams over the controversy. If enough public pressure is applied, a company can also find itself answering to external powers and regulators which further strains business operations. You’ll need to focus on addressing concerns and mitigating any negative effects of the controversy in your next piece of comms. 

However, for some businesses controversy and scandal increases their visibility, leading to increased sales or popularity. Though we can’t say whether this I the case for BP from a consumer standpoint, it may make them a more attractive business partner on account of their high profits.  

What tools can PR and Comms teams use to measure a CEOs media profile? 

1. Onclusive CEO Index 

The CEO Index analyses media coverage about the leaders of the US and Europe’s largest publicly listed companies. View the dasboard here. 

2. Social listening tools 

Social listening tools can help PR teams monitor social media channels for mentions of the CEO’s name or the company – whether positive, negative, or neutral. Digimind Social Listening can help track these all-important mentions. 

3. Media monitoring reports 

Today’s media monitoring tools offer alerts and notifications for breaking news or articles about specific topics. You can build a comprehensive view of changing coverage over time and generate reports to analyse the data. 

4. Planning with a full view of upcoming news stories. 

Forward Planner is a rich database of future key events and news items, looking ahead 12 months. Armed with this foresight you can identify opportunities, avoid risks, and understand the stories that will shape tomorrow’s news agenda. 

A PR and communication strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable to respond to media controversy. In order to do this, you should arm yourselves with the tools that give you maximum visibility. 

Check out our CEO Index dashboard for insights on media coverage on the US and Europe’s largest publicly listed company CEOs.