I recently ran an industry survey, asking 1,000 tourism officials to identify their biggest concern. It's heavy stuff. The biggest concern question is interesting to ask but scary to answer, and we received a range of scary answers back. I had answers citing everything from disgruntled employees, currency devaluations, terrorism concerns to TripAdvisor ratings. But the most common issue cited, regardless of nationality or business size, was "negative headlines."
Negative headlines are scary for a bunch of reasons. No one likes to see their name in the news for the wrong reasons. Bad stories hurt revenue, bookings and sponsorship. They negatively impact employee morale and goodwill.
Scary headlines are pervasive. Obviously, we've all seen them. Any business leader has a collection of stories starring crazy customers or crazy circumstances. But no matter how whacky the circumstances, every damaging story out there has something in common -- how to finish it. As wide-ranging as negative headlines may be, there are still two ways -- and only two ways -- to kill a damaging story.
But first, slow down there, Skippy. Before you start to sharpen your story-killing hatchet, it's important to recognize what type of negative story you're dealing with.
The first type of story is factual. No problem. That negative story will end because the situation that caused it has ended. Period.
Your region hit by a hurricane? The hurricane has moved on. Therefore, it's the end of story. That's it, that's all. You can all move on. There's nothing to see here.
Ahh -- if only it were that simple. In our experience, only about a small minority of negative stories are fact-based. Granted, it's confusing, because the majority of stories START that way. But here's the problem -- stories evolve. When a story evolves, it starts to collect emotions.
When emotions enter the story, that's when they go squirrly. The microsecond that emotions walk into a room, facts go out a window.
It's shocking how many business leaders have a mythical hope that as long as they don't have, cause or create a negative situation, there will be no negative headlines. It's fairytale thinking that "as long as nothing bad happens, we'll be fine." It's also laughably naïve and downright dangerous.
These second phase stories are "sticky." They don't wash off easily. Whether it's a product recall, a manufacturing flaw, a privacy breach, a lion attack, or an employee doing something stupid, these headlines boil down to an inescapable fact of life -- crap happens and sometimes, people will blame you for it. You may not have done anything wrong, but unless you're prepared to address the emotion that goes into the allegation, you're dead in the water.
These sticky stories only exist because we allow them to. There are multiple opportunities to kill these stories, but it's shocking how many companies choose not to. And the reason they choose not to? It's because they mistakenly assume that an emotional story is a fact-based story. They wrongly assume they can kill the story by answering facts.
Put simply -- if you're a mayor caught smoking crack, you cannot make headlines go away by simply saying, "I don't smoke crack cocaine." There's a whole bunch of questions you need to answer -- and quickly.
Similarly, if you're a tourism destination under threat of volcanic eruption, it's not going to be enough to simply point out that your region is in a safe area.
Even if you're not asked, it's time to get into full-on security blanket mode. It's your job as a communicator to start answering the unasked questions that people are afraid to ask. When did you know? How can you tell? How can you be sure?
Brainstorm all the scary ways your message can be received, and start answering THOSE questions.
When you answer the scary, sticky questions, you do a ju-jitsu move on your opponent. There's nowhere for fear to live. There's no room for conflict to grow.
In the absence of conflict, watch the anxiety disappear, watch the media get bored and move on, and watch the tourists come back in droves to see the cool volcano.
It's awesome and powerfully effective but it does require thick skin and brave corporate leadership. You cannot get away with "half-answers" in a high-risk environment. But if you're prepared to answer the tough questions by being open and honest, it's impressive how quickly you can turn the horrifying into the has-been.
MORE ON HUFFPOST: