In September 2009, Boston-area Hyatt hotels found themselves in a whirlwind of negative publicity as a result of a management decision to replace their housekeeping staff with lower wage workers. Ninety-eight housekeepers were fired and claimed that they were asked to train their replacements under the false premise that they were vacation fill-ins. The fired workers were paid $15 per hour, while the new staff – workers outsourced from an Atlanta staffing agency – earned $8 per hour.

The community was outraged that workers were being tossed aside in favor of the bottom line, and bloggers were abuzz about the case. The fired workers and their supporters organized a rally to demonstrate their anger. Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick was so offended that he threatened to have the state government boycott the hotel chain, bringing even more media attention to the issue.

All business owners and managers hope to avoid situations like this, but in order to save your company’s reputation you must act appropriately and immediately. A public relations mistake – poor customer service publicized or perhaps a management scandal – can forever taint the business name and cause consumers to steer clear of association with you.

What causes negative publicity? In today’s world of instant information, any mistake can become news. Ten years ago a mistreated customer would voice his or her concerns and then quickly be forgotten. But now that customer can blog about the experience or create a video for YouTube to attract international attention. Or an accounting error – previously an internal issue – can be Tweeted by a disgruntled employee and shared with the world.

If your business becomes caught up in a situation like any of these, don’t run and hide. Address the issue and take steps to prevent future mistakes. Following these guidelines will help to minimize negative publicity and help you to recover from poor public relations circumstances. It will take time to rebuild an organization’s image, but it’s possible with the right plan of attack.

Issue a statement immediately. 

Avoid your instinct to ignore the problem and hope it disappears. Not only does inaction make your company appear suspicious, it encourages rumors to circulate. If you don’t put your side of the story out there, it has no chance of being heard. Issuing an apology is important as well. You may not feel that a situation is your fault, but in most cases some form of “I’m sorry” is necessary. Not doing so tells the public that you have no sympathy for their concerns.

In the Hyatt case, several official statements were released on the company’s Press Room section of their Web site in the weeks following their negative publicity. Although an apology was not offered, officials expressed their sympathy for and desire to assist their former staff by offering severance benefits and job search assistance.

Fix the problem.

Do everything you can to correct whatever went wrong in leading to negative publicity. Did you introduce a new product that turned out to be a complete flop? Did customers complain about poor customer service? Announce a new training system and improve the system. Don’t forget that last important step: Improve the system. Consumers will judge you by your actions, not words.

Hyatt hotels issued a second statement three days after its first, announcing the creation of a new “task force” responsible for assisting the 98 fired housekeepers in finding new employment. The news release again stated their regret at having to replace the housekeeping staff. Although this did not fix the problem – the workers wanted their original jobs back – it was necessary for the company to announce what services they were able to provide for them and attempt to reconcile the dispute.

Respond to allegations.

Pay attention to what’s being said about your story online and in the media. This is important for multiple reasons – if you are contacted and asked to respond you will know exactly what is going on. Also, you needn’t wait until you are contacted by a journalist to offer your statement. Post the truth on your Web site or Twitter account. These are sources that people interested in the situation will undoubtedly check, and where you can control the message.

Hyatt posted an additional news release in response to Governor Patrick’s threat of boycotting the hotel chain. The statement was a way to put their side of the story in front of the media and consumers, and also gave Hyatt the opportunity to reiterate their previous offers of job training and additional compensation to the fired workers. Continued communication is imperative to send the message that the company cares and is working to resolve the issue.

Maintain goodwill.

Once your company has recovered from its negative public relations issue (or preferably, before one occurs), it will be important to connect with your community to maintain relationships. There are plenty of ways to establish your organization as a “good neighbor.” If you run an office, take a day off work and instead, have your employees volunteer at the local food bank. Sponsor a little league team. If you own a restaurant, invite community organizations to host meetings at your facility for free or a reduced rate.

All of these opportunities for community involvement are positive public relations tactics. They cause people to remember your name and that the company has helped them in the past. Being a good neighbor ensures that you have enough good publicity to combat the bad, if or when it occurs in the future.

If implementing these steps seems overwhelming to you, a public relations firm can be hired to assist in managing the process of regaining your positive image. Companies who specialize in these issues are accustomed to being called without warning to employ media relations and community outreach tactics, and their fees are well worth the recovery of your business image.