Newton’s Law: When Communicating Bad News, Don’t Let Your Response Become the Story

On some level, you can forgive Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for his behavior during the post-Super Bowl 50 press conference two Sundays ago. His team, which was favored to win, had just been defeated. He’d spent much of the day running for his life, the target of very large, fast men whose job it was to detach his head from his torso. And now this: Glaring lights, cameras snapping; the same questions over and over again. On top of it all, it was difficult to hear. By mistake, audio from the winning Denver Broncos ’ celebration down the hall was being pumped into the crowded pressroom where Newton sat, sullen, with a hoodie over his head, giving monosyllabic answers and eventually walking out in the middle of a reporter’s question. His departure—perhaps the only time all day he moved without being chased—became a significant story and offers lessons for PR pros about how to handle difficult news.

Newton’s situation would have been difficult for an older, media-trained executive, much less for a 26-year-old athlete who’s not paid primarily to parry and thrust with reporters. Still, it’s part of his job—the NFL requires players to spend three minutes answering reporters’ questions. “He did a disservice to his brand” with his demeanor, his one-word answers and walking out, says Andy Gilman, president & CEO, CommCore Consulting Group.

Relating this incident to PR, there’s a plethora of 20-something execs in high tech who face the media, and often they’re asked questions far graver than why didn’t your team win the Super Bowl. They regularly take questions about products that caused sickness or death, hacked data, large layoffs, bad financials and executive misconduct. We asked several PR pros for insight about handling difficult news.

Stay the Course: At the moment, there are few brand spokespeople with a tougher assignment than Chipotle’s Chris Arnold. Still, Arnold is earning media plaudits for his responsiveness. “Culturally, we have always tried to be accessible to media and do our best to respond to any reasonable request,” he says. Despite the volume of requests over the past few months, “We have really tried to maintain that same approach — remaining accessible and engaged with media, and transparent....”

Speak or Stay Silent? Let’s get practical: When your brand has bad news do you suppress it or inform the media? “In general the advice is go out with the news, know the amount of information you want to tell, and you can at least control the message or get balanced coverage,” Gilman says. “We assume today that bad news is impossible to contain—[there are] the employee rumor mill, the Internet, the press. Someone will tell your bad news,” he says. Discovery Communications CCO David Leavy agrees. “A fundamental rule of PR is to get all the bad news out,” he says. “We’ll take our lumps if we need to...our approach is to be completely honest, transparent, not be in a bunker and be available to reporters.“ In today’s media landscape, “most bad news tends to burn off pretty quickly,” he adds.

There also are situations when you have bad news that you feel nobody will care about. Do you keep quiet? “That’s a judgment call,” Gilman says. If a brand decides to keep silent, though, it “better be prepared to respond fast” if the news gets out and people care, he says.

Honesty is Such a Lonely Word: Of course putting out bad news, admitting you goofed, means PR pros constantly are butting heads with lawyers, right? Gilman, a lawyer, disagrees. “This is why it’s important at the outset [for PR] to have a seat at the table,” he says. “That way you can have a discussion rather than butt heads. [PR] needs to respect lawyers.” On the other hand, Gilman admits, “When in doubt, the lawyers are probably going to win.”

For Mike Paul, president of The Reputation Doctor, Gilman’s points are spot on. “Normally we don’t get to walk into the situation and talk directly to the client, we have to jump over the attorneys.” Brands have two counselors, Paul adds, the attorney and the PR person. “Sometimes you have to choose between them,” one works in law courts, the other in the court of public opinion. All the PR pros we spoke with emphasized transparency and honesty, although many said brands need to know how much of the truth to tell. As one said, “Making a statement [to the press] doesn’t mean you have to tell everything you know.”

Getting Practical: OK, so you’ve decided to hold a press conference or do an interview. It’s best to “pre-plan talking points and stay on message,” says Lisa Arledge-Powell, president of MediaSource. “Preparation of your talking points eliminates guesswork,” she adds. In addition, she advocates using a message map document to help navigate touch topics. “This document works like a road map, giving you a simple format to list out important points and help guide you through your interview or event.” More tips from Arledge-Powell: Give concise answers; one question, one thought; never lie or hedge; treat journalists with respect; rehearse before interviews or press conferences; learn the technology (don’t figure out how to operate a microphone or pointer during the news conference); and offer facts and real life examples.

Body language and tone are critical when facing bad news, says Discovery’s Leavy. “Don’t be overly defensive and avoid one-word answers,” he adds. “How you respond to a bad news becomes part of the story if you do it badly.”

Editor’s Note: For tips on communicating bad news in speeches, see prnewsonline.com’s subscribers-only section.

NOTE: This content appeared originally in PR News, February, 15, 2016. For subscription information, please visit: http://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info

CONTACT: @agilman @chipotlemedia david_leavy@discovery.com @reputationdr @lisaarledge@em