Harriet Harman’s response or rather lack thereof to the Daily Mail’s stories about her connection to a paedophile organisation shows exactly what not to do when faced with a PR disaster.

It is of course tempting to ignore adverse publicity or a complaint and hope it goes away. This can work. If there isn’t really a story in the first place, a reporter may float it just to provoke a response and if no-one rises to the bait, there is no conflict and the story dies. I’ve been on both ends of this.

On one occasion a publicly funded body began providing services in competition with one of my clients, a private commercial company. I doubted much could be done to stop them but I thought there was a chance of some publicity for my client so I persuaded them to write a complaint to the local newspaper. It was printed but my hope that the other party would defend itself and we could garner further publicity was dashed. Perhaps we would have been more successful if we’d talked to a reporter about our grievance.

More recently a subsidised organisation with which I’m associated was attacked in a letter in the local press. I was all for responding, on the grounds that it gave us an opportunity to counter the criticisms and  talk about all the good things we do.  I was outvoted and we reacted with dignified silence. I appreciate that it can be a case of ‘least said, soonest mended’ but I still worry that, since we didn’t deny it, some readers will think what was said was true.

You can understand why Ms Harman or her advisors might have thought that the Mail was simply trying to smear her and any comment was only going to keep the smear going. She may have thought that the chance of persuading Daily Mail readers that she was right and the Mail was wrong were remote.

The trouble is, the Mail was confident it was on to something and Ms Harman’s lack of response i.e. apology became the story. In my experience, unless you are absolutely sure your silence will kill a story before it gets into the public domain, you must respond. That response must acknowledge any mistakes or wrongdoing, apologise if necessary, then swiftly move on to a positive story about the changes that have been made and the good work now being carried out.

In Ms Harman’s case, she could count on the support of other media, who hate the Mail more than they hate her. She could explain how these vile people came to be affiliated with the organisation she worked for, regret that they were ever able to do so, show that she was not in any way sympathetic to paedophiles and go on to speak of the good work both of Liberty and herself in combatting child abuse.

I’ve always liked a complaint or a bad news story because it gives a great opportunity to talk about all the positive aspects of your organisation. Yes, it may bring attention to a complaint that some people might have missed but, in these days of social media spreading every little rumour let alone genuine bad news, that’s a forlorn hope. At least when you respond to stories, letters and tweets, you are retaking control of your brand image.

This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy The Lewis Experience based at Hampshire Workspace, and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.