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Getting In Front of Bad News

By April 11, 2016 October 27th, 2016 News & Viewpoints

My daughter is a college-recruited athlete and invested time visiting schools, getting to know coaches and teams. She is in regular contact with the head coach at one of her top choices as he consistently calls, sends emails and pens old-fashioned handwritten notes. I saw on the news the school’s athletic department was sanctioned with NCAA recruiting violations and is now barred from post-season play for three years. The school is appealing the decision, but the news is out there. What have we heard from the coach? Nothing.

While the news article makes the situation sound like an honest mistake based on a technicality, in the absence of any explanation, we draw our own conclusions. The coach missed a major opportunity to control or at least shape the message to someone he’s actively recruiting. Instead, she’s written off the school.

It’s an important reminder to communicators on how critical it is to get out in front of bad news. If I were advising the school or coach, this is what I would counsel:

  1. Be timely. Acknowledge the story early and promise to keep your key constituents up to date. This will show that you care and are vested into keeping your audiences informed. Your goal is to proactively share information instead of being in the defensive position of answering inquiries.
  2. Be honest. If you don’t know the answer or the outcome, say so. Don’t speculate, but instead give a timeline on when you might know more, with (again) the promise to keep key audiences up to date.
  3. Provide context. Be sure to include the surrounding details. Is this a common occurrence? An honest mistake? Easily rectified? Understanding some of the extenuating circumstances may soften some of the concern. This can also help expand the conversation to include relevant points that may take out some of the sting in an otherwise negative situation.
  4. Tone matters. As important as the specific words conveyed, care too must be applied to tone. Avoid perceptions of combativeness and defensiveness.
  5. Offer apologies. Convey you recognize the situation is harming, or at least stressing others. That alone is worthy of an apology regardless of the current appeal, and an apology does not concede guilt. As far as what you should say: be sincere and direct with no equivocations.
  6. Be realistic. Even taking all these steps to best inoculate against the situation, be realistic that it may not make a difference. But it will at least give you a fighting chance and a base to build from as you move forward to repair your reputation.

Would my daughter’s decision be different if the coach followed these steps? We will never know. What’s certain is that this school and its current athletic staff lost credibility and trust in my household because they did not address the issue head on. Too often, those in the crosshairs are paralyzed by bad news. Some decide to wait things out until the issue blows over. But in today’s 24/7 communications environment, we expect constant updates and accountability. Getting ahead of bad news will ensure your voice is part of the important narrative that shapes opinion. The lesson my daughter learned from all this: staying silent only makes things worse.

Sharon Hegarty is a managing director and partner at Stratacomm, based in our Detroit office.