Delivering the BAD NEWS As a Public Information Officer


CarolinaFireJournal - Bill Suthard
Bill Suthard
10/18/2019 -

Today’s “news” is dynamic and real time. It can arrive in the form of a credentialed, bonified media representative, a bystander with an ax to grudge who owns a YouTube page, a simple member of the local homeowner’s association wanting to keep their members and residents informed, or a well-known member of your community who files regular freedom of information act requests with your agency. 

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The main thing to remember is that these examples are the same. They are today’s media. And YOU, as a public information officer (PIO), serves as the official conduit for their “stories.” Never discount them, never discredit them and never take for granted their true impact. They all equally have a right to hear from you.

As we say, good news travels fast, but bad news travels even faster and grows even bigger, often taking on a life of its own. Who’s to say your original audience hangs around to hear the real, true story if/when the correction is made? Keep in mind that those corrections often occur, pages deep within the periodical and not on the front page, or at the end of the late-night news broadcast at 11:29 p.m.

As a PIO, bad news is inevitable, you and your agency WILL have to navigate it. If your leadership implores you to bury bad news, ignore it or do not respond to inquiries regarding a negative/bad news story, I recommend you reconsider and convince them on an alternative approach. There is a saying in journalism, an old saying “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” Journalists and residents alike will dig, investigate and report tirelessly on the story — if they think you’re hiding, or misleading them.

By responding and directly addressing the bad news, you have the chance to acknowledge it outright, provide some background and your side of the story. Build the rapport and the trust, make sure they know you’re not sidestepping them and if needed, provide action steps to build the confidence back with your audience, residents and reporters. You absolutely stand the chance of maintaining, if not building, credibility with your audience almost immediately.

Bad News

So, what exactly is ‘bad news’? Well, it depends on who you ask. A public information officer will say that bad news is anything that detrimentally affects the “brand” of the agency. Your leadership may believe that bad news is anything that they perceive is opposite of their agency mission, general orders, etc. Both are correct. However, bad news can also be negative, such as the arrest of an agency member, excessive use of force, conduct unbecoming (social media, public behavior), errors and mistakes contributing to the loss of a citizen or their property. The list could go on. The key to managing a bad news incident is how you respond to it initially as well as your subsequent responses.

Responding to Bad News

First off, the worst thing a PIO can do when responding to bad or negative news is to do the following:

  • Ignore it
  • Avoid it
  • Excuse it
  • Mislead the public
  • Mislead the media
  • Defend the obvious...

The best thing a PIO can do when responding to bad news is to:

  • Acknowledge it quickly, without delay
  • Make sure agency leadership is part of the bad news response
  • Apologize if you need to, but reassure that it won’t happen again and that you’re still researching what happened. Buy some time – positively
  • Involve and engage industry experts to help you correct the course

The best thing you can do is to immediately address the issue. No matter how bad the news is. Addressing it directly, with the truth, will always help you. The term “reputation mismanagement” is a widely used term for those that avoid, excuse, mislead, redirect or avoid reporting to your customers (media, residents, fellow employees, victims associated). Trust me when I say there are many examples of reputation mismanagement. What’s interesting is that many agencies have PIOs or at least someone managing their public relations. According to the Department of Labor, public relations professionals outnumber journalists six to one. This is more than a double increase in the last 10 years. So why does this occur if we have someone “in charge” of media relations?

Always remember that timely, accurate and actionable information to the public and the media IS a primary responsibility of the PIO. That could mean having to acknowledge an unfortunate event. If you, as the PIO, releases that unfortunate information first; you’re transparent to your audience, which is a very important reputation to have. Being first can be difficult, especially during the 24-hour news cycle, but you need to be timely in addressing bad news. Below is an example of an agency immediately posting bad news.

PIO’s must be careful that they don’t seem to be withholding information from the media and the public. This approach will only erode trust within your community and your media partners.

Examples of Addressing Bad News Directly Examples of Poor Responses

Incident involving a PA fire house makes the news and social media rounds.

Fire in DC involving a ‘delayed’ dispatch of help makes the news and social media rounds.

I read in an article on Poynter (poynter.org) recently that stated “a series of studies sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) says public information officers are making it more difficult to get access to interviews and information. The article recalled that back in July 2014 SPJ along with 37 other journalism organization sent a letter to, then President, Barrack Obama complaining that PIOs were “requiring questions in writing before interviews, having PIOs monitor and direct interviews with agency employees, prohibiting employees from speaking to journalists and blackballing reporters who question too aggressively.” (https://www.spj.org/news.asp?ref=1254). This is a trend that more than a few agencies are taking as of late. It’s a trend that I do not agree with, nor do I practice with my assigned agency(s).

My recommendation: build trust, build rapport, be accessible and NEVER avoid bad news. Address it immediately and own it. You will find the community and the media happy that you did. One public safety executive whom I feel does an amazing job at this is the Police Chief for the Prince Georges County Police Department (Maryland). I challenge you to follow their social media accounts (@PGPD1 on FaceBook). Chief Stawinski believes that bad news should go to the community, quickly and directly from him. I applaud him and you can see examples of him taking bad news straight to the community by reviewing some of his videos on the page.

Web: http://huntersvillefd.com

Twitter: @huntersville_fd

Twitter: @BPSuthard

Twitter: @CarolinaBhood

Twitter: @CFD_Alarm

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HuntersvilleFireDepartment

 

 

Bill Suthard is a Firefighter/EMT and Public Information Officer (PIO). He works part-time for the Huntersville Fire Department and full-time for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned as the Operations Manager for their Communications Division. Suthard directly manages the five Shift Supervisors and 36 other members of the Division. He manages the Division’s public information, social media accounts. Suthard is also an instructor for the Federal Emergency Communications Division (ECD), a portion of the Department of Homeland Security. Each year, in October, he also serves as the PIO for the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial service in Emmitsburg Maryland which he lists as one of his greatest accomplishments.
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