By Tim Hayes


There are moments in the life of a professional communicator when you know the crap is coming.  Those are the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls, not to mention their paychecks and retainer contracts.


The public relations staff at Goldman Sachs know this, as earnings are about to be released this week, along with announcement of billions in executive bonuses, just a year after accepting massive amounts of federal bailout funds. 


How can an organization deal with negative pushback from shareholders, customers, and in this case the taxpaying public in situations like this?  Is there any logical, credible, and sustainable defense? 


The sunny side is that there indeed is a perfectly good, totally effective, and historically proven way for communicators to help their organizations deal with bad news before it arrives.  And it can be summed up in three simple steps:

1.      Promote the good.

2.      Admit the bad.

3.      Explain improvements.


The best bad news is the bad news that you can anticipate.  It gives the organization time to think strategically and prepare its messages.  By applying all three steps, you can deal with any issue.  But by leaving any one of the three out (and you know which one I’m talking about, No. 2) your communications cannot be nearly as effective.


Stonewalling, stalling, or stemwinding verbal feints only give the media and your constituencies reason to keep digging, doubting, and damning.  Owning up to shortfalls early – before others define your problems for you – is really the only way to go. 


Years ago I worked for a large public utility when the concept of Earth Day was being resurrected for the first time.  Coal-burning power plants and a major two-unit nuclear facility didn’t exactly endear us to the environmental movement, to say the least, so we knew we were in for some bad press.  But it never happened.  Here’s why.


We made the strategic decision to get way out in front of the Earth Day celebration by becoming completely transparent regarding our environmental record.  Truth was we had a very strong story to tell regarding exceeding federal and state emissions standards, Superfund site cleanups, maintaining water quality, and so on.  Not everything was perfect, as might be expected, and we owned up to all of that, as well – along with complete explanations of what we were doing to make things better.  We publicized contact names and numbers of key Environmental and Nuclear department leaders, offered to host tours of facilities to media and community groups, and set up a special Earth Day hotline to answer questions and take suggestions from the public about our environmental performance.


The result?  Not one story in the media, good or bad, about our company.  Not one response to our tour offerings.  Not one call to the hotline.  Earth Day came and went, and no one gave us a second thought.


Our competitors took another route, clamming up, taking a defensive posture, and getting clobbered with negative stories in the press, protests at their nuclear facilities, and basically taking it on the jaw.


Lesson learned?  When bad news is coming, you don’t have to just stand there like a jackass in a hailstorm and take it.  By promoting the good, admitting the bad, and explaining improvements, you at least take responsibility.  And most fair-minded people respect and honor that kind of effort.


Copyright 2009 Tim Hayes Consulting