Business Writing/Content

How Spokespeople Should Announce Bad News

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Scandal. Controversy. Crisis. No business or organization plans to land itself in the middle of bad news, but unfortunately, the regular course of human affairs can bring challenging moments like these. If you are an official spokesperson or represent your company, how can you best handle this kind of situation?

In my experience, the answer boils down to the following: being proactive, practicing emotional intelligence, demonstrating good character, and adapting to feedback from the public.

Be Proactive

First and foremost, it helps to have a crisis communications plan in place before any such emergency happens. This document should outline who the appropriate spokesperson or people should be and procedures for other staff to follow should they receive inquiries from outside the organization.

In addition, the entire staff should already have received thorough training in this plan so everyone knows who is authorized to comment to the media and answer questions. Consequently, they will readily direct inquiries to the right spokespeople and refrain from making public statements themselves, meaning there will be less risk of a team member making erroneous or unhelpful comments based on incomplete information.

If you or your organization doesn’t have a crisis communications plan, it’s crucial to develop one without delay. By definition, emergencies don’t arrive on schedule — they tend to emerge when it’s most inconvenient. The good news is that crisis communications and public relations experts can help you create a customized strategy for your organization as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible.

Practice Emotional Intelligence

Sometimes, you won’t know the facts of the matter right away. In cases like these, stay calm. 

Crises are hard on everyone involved, so practice self-compassion and handle any difficult emotions before engaging with the rest of your team. Once you have returned to a calm state of mind, set about collecting information.

Meanwhile, given our fast-paced world, it’s essential to still be transparent, so communicate internally to craft an appropriate message to share with the public. For instance, you could explain that you aren’t in full possession of the facts yet and your investigations are ongoing. 

You could also explain that you don’t want to say anything that might turn out to be inaccurate later, so that’s why you don’t want to say anything more. This demonstrates your commitment to communicating promptly and honestly while giving a good reason for not answering in-depth questions. Many people will grant you the benefit of the doubt if you can present solid grounds like these.

Hopefully, in the course of your investigations, you will discover information that exonerates yourself or your organization. Let’s turn our attention to the worst-case scenario, however. What should you do if you or your organization really are to blame?

Demonstrate Good Character

Many people will feel tempted to hide the truth when that truth casts them in a negative light, believing they can cover it up and continue as though nothing happened. When the bad news comes out, however, it’s often this coverup that outrages the public most. The original incident almost pales in comparison.

Why? The original problem may have been due to poor judgment, but everyone makes mistakes. Choosing to deceive, however, is a character flaw. 

When the coverup is discovered, the public’s trust is irreparably harmed, and the person or organization is unable to recover its reputation. Just as in personal relationships with friends and family, the second you lie, you change the other person’s image of you. From that point on, part of them will probably doubt you.

When deciding between coming clean and lying, it’s best to do the former. While the bad news may seem difficult to overcome on its own, trying to hide it would only allow the issue to fester while adding a lack of honesty.

On the other hand, having the courage to be honest and admit errors is a sign of good character. Apologizing, coming clean, and expressing disappointment in oneself — while it might feel embarrassing — demonstrates that you have the courage and strength to take personal responsibility. The public finds it easier to forgive those who take this stance rather than those who try to escape their rightful share of blame.

That said, only apologize if you or your organization truly were at fault. Apologizing when one hasn’t done anything wrong can make one appear weak. According to psychologist Beverly Engel, you may apologize to try to be nice, but recipients can interpret you as being ineffective and unconfident instead. In addition, apologizing only to take it back later can land you at the bottom of an even bigger hole. Luckily, Harvard Business Review has published a helpful guide that can help organizations decide whether to apologize and how.

Monitor and Adapt

The last step is to monitor the public’s reaction. Since audiences are usually far from homogenous, you can expect responses that run the gamut from supportive to intensely critical. This phase requires being willing to listen to negative feedback and adapt accordingly, refining your messages and planning further to achieve your goals.

I won’t lie — if that sounds challenging, that’s because it is.

That’s another reason why relying on the advice of experienced public relations professionals can prove indispensable during these challenging times. These experts can coach you every step of the way, not only giving you guidance and support, but also supplying you with the exact language to say given your particular circumstances. Since they keep their hands on the pulse of public opinion, they understand best how to maximize your chances of recovering your reputation.

Emerging Stronger than Ever

While breaking bad news to the public can feel like the end of the world, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be. With the help of public relations experts, you and your organization can solve the problem, reforge your reputation to make it stronger than ever, and move on.

About the author


Thomas Mustac

Thomas is Otter PR's medical and health industry PR specialist. He previously held positions at the Dr. Oz Show and New York Medical College. He has his Master's Degree from Iona College and received an Advanced Certification in Nonprofit Public Relations. He has a diverse background in healthcare, pharmaceutical, telehealth, tech, cosmetics, sports, and interior design public relations.