I’ve got some bad news… The role of PR in sharing bad news

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By Linda Forrest

It can’t all be good news, sadly.

The trick is knowing how to share your bad news using PR so that you come out the other side of it as upright as you possibly can. It’s not just “spin” that needs to be considered here; trying to convince the marketplace of your silk purse when you’re clearly holding a sow’s ear does nobody any favours, but there are proven tactics that can be employed to dampen the impact of your bad news, whether its personal peccadillos of your executive team, bad sales figures, lost deals, lawsuits, or any other myriad pieces of information that your marketplace needs to know about, whether you really want them to or not.

To tell or not to tell

We subscribe to the theory that if they (in this case, the media) are going to run you out of town, get out in front and make it look like a parade — meaning that it’s best to be the deliverer of your own bad news, especially in today’s 24-hour news cycle, rather than let your messaging be controlled by the market. Nothing is secret (or will stay hidden for long) in our age of digital media, social media… Thinking otherwise is folly. If you’ve got bad news, best to be the bearer of it rather than be caught unawares with no plan on how to manage the bad news somebody else announced for you.

How salacious the story is, how notable the company is and whether it happens to come on a slow news day will all impact how much play your news will get. The old adages “the only good news is bad news,” and “if it scares, it airs” are fitting here: if your organization is a household name and its market share is falling rapidly through the floor, or if your CEO gets caught with his or her pants down (or worse, their hand in the cookie jar), you can bet that it’ll be a top story.

If you’re a public company – sorry, bub, you don’t have a choice in the matter if the bad news could be considered material. You must release it, no matter the outcome. Your shareholders, board members and other stakeholders are entitled to receive the news from the source. This instance is what crisis communication plans are made for. It should be easy to anticipate the sorts of earth-shattering news that could come from your organization, whether it’s simply poor performance in the marketplace, litigation or scandal. Your PR team, working with your executive team, should have mapped out exactly how to communicate the news to the marketplace. Execute the plan and adjust for real-time market reaction as you go. This is bound to be a rollercoaster; hold on tight.

As an About.com article on handling bad news and scandal with PR said,

To most journalists, “No comment” sounds an awful lot like “Guilty,” and only handing out the truth pieces at a time keeps the story alive longer.

Well put.

Get out in front of the bad news

In some instances, the unfortunateness will have been easily foretold, your team will have had advanced warning of its expected release. Depending on the timelines involved, this represents a golden opportunity for your spokespeople to get some face time with the media leading up to the announcement. If you can establish some mindshare in advance of the news breaking – talking about the market conditions, a shift in your business model to accommodate changing market conditions, have your leaders sharing their vision for moving forward and how the company is growing and changing to respond to the market – these sorts of messages will at least tell followers of your company that the leadership is aware of problems at the organization and they are actively working to make improvements.

If all else fails, there’s always Friday at 4:59pm

If you want your news buried and to make as little noise as possible, release it close to close of business on Friday. You’ll be adhering to all of the requisite disclosure rules, but not attracting as much attention as you would have had you spilled the beans at 9am on a Tuesday.

The moral of the story

Hopefully your bad news won’t spell the end of your organization; it seldom does. But it can seem like the end of the world at the time. That’s why it’s best to plan for a crisis well in advance of a crisis itself. Rather than revert to spin, adhere to best practices. The reputation of your organization and the players involved will come out the other side better than they might have should you have turned to deceptive and manipulative activities to divert market attention.

Let’s hope you never need to use this advice.

Image: Big Think

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