Embrace the bad news or lose the conversation

One of the first lessons I learned as a public affairs officer in Iraq is that there are some reporters who are going to dig up things you really don’t want the world to know about your organization. I quickly figured out that hiding under my desk with my fingers in my ears muttering “You don’t see me…you don’t see me” over and over didn’t really make the situation any better.

There is really only one way to deal with a bad news story and that is to embrace the pain and dive in with both feet with the journalist or blogger as they are working the story to try and ensure that at least the right facts are published with your voice and then help your organization fix the problem they found.

The simple fact is that you can’t claim to be “ahead” of a story once its been published.

A few years ago a hard working journalist at the New York Times had dug up some compelling evidence of problems with the testing of some of our equipment for our troops. The story hit the front page and the Army went into full response mode mobilizing a comprehensive plan to show the innacuracy of the story from interviews and demonstrations to rolling out troops to provide testimonials on how much they loved the stuff.

A few months later I sat at an Army public affairs symposium as two terrific senior leaders did a post-mortem break down of what many would deem a very successful crisis communications response exercise. I sat in the audience and was struck by some background I knew wasn’t being mentioned.

I knew the journalist personally and had worked two stories with him that were potentially ugly. He was the kind of guy that didn’t hide the fact of what he had on you and would ask for a ton of facts and information for the story before he went to press. So, I raised my hand and asked one question “Did you all know that he was working on this story?”

They did and had chosen to not work with him because they felt he was writing a negative story. So, they developed a response and waited for it to be published.

So, we failed to provide compelling evidence in our defense until after the first story was published. In this Web 2.0 day and age he who publishes first owns the conversation. In the blogoshphere and social media echo chamber by the time you are mobilizing a response the original story is global.

By not engaging as the story is being developed we are leaving ourselves out of the conversation entirely. You are guaranteed to look defensive and desperate trying to rebut something that is already out being twisted and re-tweeted all over the world.

The same journalist had called me in Iraq with plans to do an expose on one of our organizations “failures”. I went into full fact gathering mode and by the time he arrived in Iraq we hit him hard and often with every number, brief or obscure fact he wanted. I remember being on speakerphone at 1 a.m. with the budget officer of my command going line-by-line through our numbers to make sure he got them right. We provided a comprehensive and well argued counter point to his basic thesis and ensured that when he went to print our voice would figure prominently in the piece–and it did.

The story hit the front page of the paper…and never went any further. We had provided a compelling argument in the original story that demonstrated that though we may had made mistakes we had identified those failings ourselves and they were already fixed. We took the air out of those things that would have made it a story that bounces- No cover up. No excuses. No deception.

Was the story basically negative? Sure. But by embracing the pain of dealing with it honestly and up front it died with just one print run.

The lesson is a simple one. In this modern Web 2.0 world once a story is published its too late to try and put it back in the bag. If you aren’t working up front to make sure the reporter gets it right you already lost the debate.

(This post is also posted on my blog, Armed and Curious at http://armedandcurious.blogspot.com/2009/10/embracing-bad-news.html)

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I agree 100%. It seems easier to ignore the bad news and respond later but it never truly works. It is like addressing any problem in a relationship. If you let it build and grow, it often becomes too late to tackle. Social media allows you to respond quickly even if it is only to say “yes we are listening to you and will update you shortly”. That’s a lot better than saying nothing and waiting later for a full response.

Frederick P. Wellman

Steve thanks! I think that with Twitter and instant blogging platforms the speed with which we have to respond to bad or innacurate stories is almost zero now. We have to be even more engaged than just two years ago to ensure that if at all possible the story comes out at a minimum with our voice in the conversation. Our responses are simply lost in the babble after a major story comes out.