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Can You Learn How to Handle the Bad News in your Jobs?

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There's an old journalism adage: "Dog bites man" is not news; "Man bites dog" is. The media generally thrive on the irregular, atypical, and unusual, so there's always more bad news than good news. And we all know that bad news tends to have a greater impact than good news.

It used to be that companies released good news on Monday morning and withheld bad news until Friday afternoon. This was based on the fact that Saturday newspapers in many cities are thinner and have somewhat smaller circulations and news released Friday afternoon may miss the deadlines of the newsweeklies or even be considered old news by the time The Wall Street Journal published its Monday morning edition. The truth is that ifs awfully hard to manage bad news, though, as well see, there are some situations in which the timing and method of its release can work to a company's advantage.

In this era of product recalls and governmental agency vigilance, there is more bad news than ever before. I don't have the panaceas, but in this article, 111 try to review how others have coped, survived, and succeeded, and I'll share what I've learned from my own experience.

For the last few years, Carole Gorney, an assistant professor and director of the public relations program at Lehigh University, has conducted a two-day workshop, titled "Minimizing Negative Publicity," in which she states:

"All sizable organizations-corporations, colleges and universities, health care institutions, public service, and government agencies-occasionally face problems and events that can cause negative publicity.

"Unless the organization reacts promptly and appropriately, the publicity itself may become the major problem. It can make an organization's operations more difficult, erode community support, cause funding sources to dry up, and, if it is serious and prolonged, even threaten the existence of the organization. A related problem is the need to manage the deliberate release of bad news so that it is clearly understood and its negative impact is controlled and minimized."

If you want to continue your study of this subject beyond this brief article, you might want to take Professor Gorney's course (or one like it at your own school).

The Scope of the Problem-Worse than You Thought!

Here's a list of types of bad news. It totals about fifty items already, and I'm sure you can add more:

" Accident

" Bankruptcy

" Bomb (scare or actual)

" Community ill will

" Community protests

" Competitive charges

" Controversial position on issue

" Crime (murder, rape, embezzlement)

" Criminal allegations (past and/or current employees)

" Critical review

" Disaster (weather and others)

" Election (lose a referendum; candidate)

" Employee hardships

" Error by media

" Error in news release (and subsequent correction)

" Environmental problems

" Explosion

" Fire

" Firings (employee cutbacks)

" Gossip

" Hazards (work conditions)

" Indictment

" Labor strife

" Labor strike

" Lawsuits (instigation, trial, verdict)

" Legislation (restrictive, pending, or actual)

" Lose a competition (or not receive a contract)

" Merger

" Negative Publicity

" Obituary

" Past problems

" Poor earnings

" Poor sales

" Plant closing

" Plant relocation

" Product defects

" Product tampering

" Product recall

" Product criticism (government agency, other groups)

" Proxy fight

" Radiation or nuclear energy problem

" Rumors

" Scandal (bribes, criminal activity, drugs)

" Stock criticism

" Stock price decline

" Takeovers (threatened, pending, actual)

" Threats

" Unethical conduct

Management and a Bad News Situation

In general, the handling of a bad news situation first involves management's decisions regarding an overall strategy. For example, after proper investigation and deliberation, management may decide to deny and reject the charges and allegations.

Second, management can decide to acknowledge the problem, but attempt to communicate the difficulty of solving it and/or indicate the remedies that are already being considered or investigated.

Third, management can acknowledge the problem and propose or administer a remedy or solution.

The bigger the problem, the more people are likely to be involved. In many cases, the crisis situation involves a team of lawyers, engineers, advertising people, and other experts. Management must make major decisions, ranging from recalling the product, reformulating or repackaging it, replacing it, or, as happened with tampons as a result of toxic shock syndrome and other problems, withdrawing it entirely.

The Involvement of the Public Relations Practitioner

In all of these situations, public relations people can be involved in the decision and its implementation. The resulting campaign can turn things around, depending on the skill-and in some cases, luck-of the public relations people. Unfortunately, it may simply produce more bad news by keeping the charges in the public eye.

Sometimes you can do everything right and still not win. An example is the long-term problem Procter & Gamble has had with its logo, which some people continue to insist is associated with satanism. For a while, P&G's aggressive public denials and its actions, which included suing some of the perpetrators of the malicious rumors, seemed to be successful. However, the rumors just wouldn't die-P&G finally had to modify its logo.

The Right Way and the Wrong Way

Here's another unusual situation: A few years ago, the Mobil Corporation decided to cancel its advertising in The Wall Street Journal, literally boycotting the newspaper by denying its reporters interviews with any Mobil officials. (If s important to note that this seemingly-radical action took place after some five years of what Mobil claimed were problems of working with the Journal.) Nevertheless, its action was poorly perceived and roundly criticized.

Now contrast the generally poor marks given to Mobil in its handling of the Journal with the extraordinary praise heaped upon Johnson & Johnson in connection with its two Tylenol crises-the first in 1982, the repetition of the same problem in 1986. Johnson & Johnson's response to one of the most devastating incidents in American corporate history was simply a reaffirmation of its corporate credo, which emphasizes its responsibilities to its various publics. Incidentally, the good side of the Tylenol tragedy is the subsequent comeback of the product in terms of share of market.
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