|Breaking Bad News Puts You in Control|
|By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.|
Every book on military history emphasizes the need for choosing the time and place of battle. Regardless of your strengths or weaknesses, the ultimate deciding factor in many military engagements boils down to being ready and taking the battle to them.
I believe the same applies to spokespeople and the organizations they are trying to protect. Breaking bad news first can put you in control of difficult circumstances. Rather than waiting for news to leak out and have reporters come to you unannounced and prepared, you can offer the story to them on your terms. But the thought of announcing bad news will often drive you and your superiors crazy.
No one within the organization enjoys the prospect of a public examination of your dirty laundry. Regardless of how successful you are in controlling the story, it is still embarrassing to invite scrutiny of your problems. Not only do you have to be sure of the circumstances, the evidence, and the position of your organization, you have to do all of this within the context of some superiors and technocrats thinking that you have lost your mind. The primary advantage, however, is that you have the time to do your research, format strategy, and find a crucial comfort level.
But It Worked Before
Regardless of the advantages in dealing with the media head-on, many executives and technocrats would rather spend the weekend with their in-laws than be proactively candid in airing bad news. The major reason for this lack of willingness is the fact that the media did not discover previous incidents of negative news. You could provide 50 examples of proactive strategies that worked, but some executives will remember only the times when non-disclosure paid off with no media coverage.
Every spokesperson will offer examples of times when they urged the release of negative news, and executives declined the offer, and the media never discovered the incident. Few believe that it’s in their best interest to make the event public, so no one does. The story does not get out. Even if it surfaces months later, it often loses its timeliness. At this point media may decline to run the story, relegate it to inside pages of the newspaper, or thirty seconds of electronic coverage. The executive will remember this as proof that negative incidents are better left unreported.
Winning the War
Your job is to win the war, not every battle. Mistakes made by honorable people doing an honorable job rarely invoke vicious attacks by the media, as long as the organization is forthright in reporting the incident and maps out a strategy of corrective actions. Yes, disclosure will be embarrassing. Depending on the seriousness of the issue, it will invoke several days of adverse news coverage. If the current event follows on the heels of another disparaging issue, the decision to go proactive will be doubly difficult.
In my mind, there is one indisputable fact: The decision not to release negative news proactively causes decision makers to cease interest in preparing for a public response. They will pursue operational remedies to ensure that the incident does not reoccur, but they will lose interest in public preparations. Many seem to believe that preparation equals release, so they don’t. This means you’re a dead duck if the incident surfaces two weeks later and the media are armed with internal documents, interviews with employees, and research that substantiate your wrongdoings.
It’s also obvious that media will be influenced by your lack of candor. Depending on the context of the situation and the degree of risk to the public’s safety or stockholder’s profits, you and your executives could find yourselves in great peril.
As far as the media is concerned, you have acted dishonorably. News people and the public often view all mistakes alike.
Suppose the journalist represents a trade publication, and your mistaken policy greatly threatens the holdings of investors. If you try to keep it a secret, then you are going to get clobbered. If your company does not publicly recall defective products that are essential to thousands of heart monitoring devices, then you and your executives will be in for the ride of your lives while facing criminal and civil charges.
This would be a good place to recount the endless examples of corporations, governments, and other organizations that were caught trying to cover-up wrongdoings with disastrous results, but we already know them. Major companies were alleged to have prior knowledge of malfunctioning tires that caused deaths or injuries to hundreds of people. As of this writing, one is barely hanging on to its existence. Politicians have been accused of a wide array of wrongdoings and denied them, only to be skewered over an open fire when they were proven to be purposely deceitful. The public has been shocked to learn that airline crashes involved prior knowledge of inadequate parts or policies. Some of these companies no longer exist.
As I was writing this chapter, one of the largest corporations in America, a major energy trading organization, is in the process of dying due to insider mismanagement. As I edit, a major car manufacturer is charged with knowingly allowing thousands of cars with faulty ignition switches to continue operating without recall. Deaths, injuries and Congressional hearings have occurred. The examples of government or corporate officials who no longer hold their jobs due to failed and unreported policies that threatened the public interest could easily fill the remaining pages of this book.
While it is easy to look the other way when a negative incident takes place, it could have a profound influence on your senior staff and the organization you represent. Like all dire warnings, it all depends upon the context, especially with regard to the number of people it affects and the degree of seriousness or threat it poses to public safety.
If at all possible, consider carefully crafted proactive announcements of negative news. Done properly, they can protect your organization and minimize negative coverage. More importantly, being proactive can buy you a considerable amount of credibility with the media and the public. Credibility is like money in the bank; you can draw upon your account in times of need. The trick, however, is to keep a positive balance in your account.
Not all Negative Events Need Publicity
Does every negative occurrence need to be publicized? Of course not. Like anything else in our business, it depends upon context.
Honorable people doing an honorable job have the luxury of picking and choosing events to announce. Within the life of any organization, there are going to be endless examples of minor difficulties. The overwhelming majority of these do not deserve media notification. If, however, the event, product, or policy has safety implications, or greatly imperils stockholder profits, or provides the possibility of significant negative news, then you should consider its release.
Once again, context is king. Research may indicate the potential for problems for a product made by your company. Under the circumstances of preliminary data, few would advocate proactive publicity. The research would have to be replicated, methodologies must be checked, and new and independent investigators must review all.
Examinations take time. All of us are aware of initial data indicating troubling results, only to be proven wrong through review. This is a normal process that most members of the media would understand without inferring a cover-up.
But what if the preliminary research focused on a product used daily by millions of people? What if there was data indicating that aspirin caused strokes rather than prevent them? I would suggest that this is information that needs to be publicized immediately. Although preliminary, the data has obvious public safety implications.
Undoubtedly, the context of new yet negative research would have to be fully explained. But can you imagine the public reaction if the research results were covered up before being publicized by a national newspaper? All I can suggest to you is that duplicity (or even the appearance of deceit) regarding the public’s well-being can result in massive amounts of negative publicity and jeopardize the jobs of many.
Whether you choose to publicize negatives within your organization depends upon a thorough and brutally honest examination of all aspects of the situation. Beware of the Smoke Blowers. Remember that it is relatively easy for technocrats and mid-level executives to advocate nondisclosure; their jobs may not be in peril if the worst happens. But those of senior staff may be at risk. You need to protect your executives, the organization, and the public’s welfare. Sometimes this unfortunate role will fall squarely on your shoulders.
The Lost Inmates
I represented the largest branch of state government in Maryland, as well as the largest criminal justice organization in the state. The state assumed control of the Baltimore City Jail to relieve the city of a significant financial burden.
The Department of Public Safety was the lead agency in the takeover. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect that this change would produce massive media exposure. Upon the assumption of the old city jail (an ancient structure with origins in the early 1800’s), we discovered scores of inmates (over 90) being held beyond their legal time. The media dubbed them the “lost inmates” of the city jail. The story went national and international. We were processing up to 50 media inquiries per day.
Considering that the problems belonged to the city of Baltimore, there were no negative implications for my agency or the state. Unfortunately, that would change in time.
When the state took over the jail it decided to erect a state of the art building costing tens of millions of dollars and employing the latest technology adjacent to the old facility. The structure (referred to as Central Booking) was devoted to processing every person arrested in the city of Baltimore, as well as providing additional jail space for those not released after arrest.
The information system that accompanied the new jail was designed to positively identify (through fingerprints) all those arrested to connect them to outstanding warrants for other crimes or with fingerprints left behind at unsolved crime scenes. Their fingerprints were taken and analyzed by computers.
We could immediately identify the suspect via fingerprints instead of waiting weeks or months as it was under previous systems. We thought that this new technology would “apprehend” many criminals that other jurisdictions would have released because most offenders do not carry identification or lie about their names.
The system turned out to be far more successful than we anticipated. We ended up processing over 20,000 criminals each year for new crimes and warrants beyond those that brought them into booking center. For example, the Baltimore City Police would arrest someone for urinating in public, and upon processing; we would discover that he was wanted for robbery. We would book someone for burglary, and discover that his fingerprints were left behind at an unsolved violent crime scene.
Undoubtedly, you would believe that all of this would produce positive publicity for my organization. You’re right. It did up to a point, but after the initial reports of apprehensions and tying them into other crimes, the media came to expect as much. The story became commonplace and lost its luster.
The 20,000 additional arrests, plus increased aggressiveness on the part of the city police resulted in 90,000 bookings per year. We expected to process only 60,000 arrests during the early years of the structure.
We were overwhelmed. We did not have the staff, space, or the procedures to process 90,000 bookings. We started to make mistakes. We started to release criminals from the building before we were supposed to.
How Many Criminals Can You Mistakenly Release?
Defendants who were supposed to stand trial for serious crimes were improperly discharged. We released the names and descriptions of the erroneously released offenders to the media, as well as the circumstances behind the discharge.
The first two erroneous releases were embarrassing. The third or fourth erroneous release was painful. The fifth, sixth, and seventh mistaken release became dangerous. Those that quickly followed were a nightmare. It seemed as if we were a daily part of media coverage. It became media hell.
We could have blamed the problem on the numbers of people processed and the lack of resources to deal with such a vexing issue. We did point out the irony of an information system designed to serve warrants on offenders working too well. But the bottom line of the issue was the public’s safety and how many thought that we were jeopardizing rather than protecting it.
The media and the public can tolerate one, two, or three mistaken releases if quickly corrected. Once you start moving beyond the smaller numbers, the public has the right to a larger examination of your operation. Did you plan carefully enough? Did you ask for sufficient funding? Did you conduct ample research?
In some bad news stories, media coverage shifts from incident to issue. When this happens, the situation becomes dangerous.
What was our media strategy throughout this sordid series of events? From the beginning of the state’s takeover of the city jail and the implementation of the state of the art booking center, we employed a media friendly commissioner of the new Division of Pre-trial Detention and Services. Under the city, a warden who did not have the best relationship with the media ran the old jail. I advised the incoming commissioner that it was vital that he became everything that the old warden was not. Throughout the implementation of a new division the commissioner was accessible, friendly, and constantly cooperative. The media was given unprecedented access. It is no exaggeration when I say that many members of the media felt fond of the new commissioner. “He is honest and he tells it like it is,” stated many news people. He also recognized the value of publicizing bad news. The new commissioner gained considerable credibility.
There was a positive account in our credibility bank, which was a good thing, because we were about to make a major withdrawal. We recognized, however, that once the majority of the good will was exhausted, we ran the risk of serious problems.
Regardless of how much it hurt, we publicized every mistaken release. There were those inside (and outside) the organization who were angry at the never-ending flow of negative news.
Return of the Smoke Blowers
Some of those released were small-time lower level offenders who were charged with minor crimes. We or other law enforcement agencies could easily apprehend them. The Smoke Blowers argued that the release of information about these offenders was counterproductive. They insisted that it served no purpose to publicize mistakes when there were no public safety issues.
They were correct to a degree. Some of these offenders were small fish. But I believed that this thinking was dangerous. I argued that we had worked very hard to establish an atmosphere of honesty and openness regarding the new division. Up to this point, news organizations were treating the story fairly. So far, the narrative had not moved from incident to policy issue. So far, journalists accepted the fact that we were partially responsible for our own problems by the large number of warrants served and a new aggressiveness by law enforcement.
But what if our internal detractors were successful in stemming our efforts to release information on “every” mistaken discharge? “Why are you risking the organization with this never ending barrage of negative news,” they would ask? “The information about the release of minor criminals does little or nothing to protect the public.”
In my opinion, we needed to be as “up front” as possible. With some stories, what you release may not be as important as how it is released. The perception of your agency may be more important than the story itself. How the media sees you and your organization may be as or more important than the information you provide.
For example, let’s assume that our detractors were successful in stemming the flow of the story, and we only provided information on “dangerous” offenders mistakenly discharged. Who is going to assume that each and every one of these lower-level offenders would not suddenly turn into a dangerous individual? Who is going to guarantee me that our assertion of “minor” criminal will not come back to haunt us? What if an offender who was arrested for possession of drugs, and was erroneously released, goes home and viciously rapes someone? What if “sources” released this information to the media?
Under these circumstances, I would guess that the media would stop providing us with the benefit of the doubt. All it takes is for one journalist to get the ball rolling for all others. As long as we were brutally honest with the media and the public, we assumed that we had a better than even chance of straightforward, objective news coverage.
Our media policy never moved beyond simple honesty and accessibility. We gambled on the fact that we were honest people doing an honest job, and we were taking every possible step to correct the problem.
We did every interview. We took every phone call. We took media inside so they could take pictures and get television footage. We gambled that a straightforward approach would keep the issue in its proper context without jeopardizing our leadership and the larger organization.
The gamble paid off. News coverage was fair and accurate. Although they could have gone for the jugular, they did not. It would have been very easy for journalists to beat up on us. They exercised restraint.
Not that I wasn’t scared half to death. When we were into our eighth and ninth mistaken release, I spent hours riding through the countryside adjacent to the city wondering when the media would turn. “When are they going to attack,” I asked myself? They never did. To this day, I am fully convinced that it was our relationship with the media and an honest, simplistic strategy that save the day.
We decided to break bad news early and often. There were no investigative media reports. There were no surprises from news organizations. As strange as it may sound, we controlled our own negative media. We kept news organizations in the market so busy with our own efforts that there was no need for a brutal examination of policy. We fought every battle at a time and place of our choosing. We admitted fault when it would be easy to blame everything on unanticipated demand. We told everyone what we were doing to end the problem. We were fully prepared for every encounter. We chose not to listen to the Smoke Blowers. We survived an extraordinarily difficult ordeal through sheer simplicity.
Won’t Work in My Market
I assume that many readers will suggest that such a policy will not work in their area. “My media are far too cantankerous and unscrupulous for me to employ such an approach,” some may assert. “The author’s relationship with media in his market was unique enough to allow him to employ a straightforward approach,” others may say. I would suggest otherwise.
The issue of a candid, proactive release of negative news is probably one of the most discussed items of public affairs officials. I think it is safe to say the majority of spokespeople I have talked to believe that this approach works.
Sometimes, unannounced negatives seem to hang over your head forever. You never know when they will surface. It becomes difficult to plan anything without worry that the endeavor will trigger unanticipated revelations. It is even possible that someone could hold the organization hostage by threatening to reveal the information. Sometimes it’s simply better to get it done and over with by carefully going public with negative news. I do not believe that the uniqueness of the market is the driving force behind this decision. I believe that this is a sound and fundamental approach to dealing with troublesome issues.
More on breaking bad news first (including specific strategies) will be addressed in future articles. See, “SUBSCRIBE TO GET UPDATES ON NEW ARTICLES” on this website to see the entire series.
Reprinted with permission from http://www.leonardsipes.com.
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Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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