Not all news is good news. But the best public relations pros know when to be proactive in releasing bad news and when to wait.
We all love to trumpet our good news from the rooftop when we are launching new products or celebrating a major acquisition or new hire. It is easy to be proactive when the news is good.
How about when your announcement is a little more nuanced or you must respond to an unwanted issue that is beyond your control? News abhors a vacuum and we’ve all seen firms mismanage or try to hide negative news.
But what is the best strategy for sharing news that could be unwelcome? The answer is…it depends.
I have been thinking a lot about this since observing the negative backlash Vanguard faced when acknowledging a policy limiting trading in the new spot bitcoin ETFs (see related post). The firm took a reactive approach, initially commenting only when the news media got a hold of the story. They later posted more detailed, brand reinforcing information on their website. Vanguard might have benefited from a more proactive communications approach—even if it was just selectively to their online brokerage clients.
It is understandable why firm management may not want to release negative news. Your hands may be tied, for example, when news of a regulatory or legal nature is beyond your control. At other times, you may not be sure of the timing of a negative event—or even if it will happen.
Here are a few more nuanced situations when it may make sense to be reactive and wait:
A minor lawsuit or regulatory matter that may not get picked up by the media
A small layoff/workforce reduction
Minor portfolio management changes
In these cases, it pays to be ready. You can prepare a statement or even a basic news release that can be shared on a reactive basis should you receive a media inquiry or if a filing becomes public.
When to be proactive
If your news will affect a wide number of people or if clients are likely to find out anyway and may be surprised if you didn’t tell them, consider proactively announcing the news. Here you will want a plan to determine who needs to be contacted and when. For significant announcements, we generally recommend tiering your client list and proactively reaching out to your biggest or most important clients before posting your news release publicly.
Examples of this kind of announcement include:
A big regulatory settlement that will be covered in the media or will require disclosure or a settlement
A major layoff
A significant legal settlement
A CEO, CIO or significant executive change
With big news that will be covered no matter what, part of your strategy may be timing your release, avoiding a slow news day when your news could become a focus. You can also decide to give a smart, fair reporter who knows your firm and is familiar with your story an early copy of the release, breaking the news hopefully in a fair and balanced way. Then post your news release to a wire service to shape the news and provide context.
When to be in the middle
There are times when it makes sense to communicate proactively with a small group of affected clients or staff and wait to issue a news release or comment. For example:
An office closure
A fund closure
A senior executive departure
Portfolio management changes
There are times when you face a news announcement that will impact your employees or clients but would prefer not to share it widely. For example, a well-known executive is unexpectedly recruited away. Often this type of news will become public when the other company announces their news. If your firm has an equally talented leader waiting in the wings, you can proactively post a news release the same day as the other firm. If not, share a proactive message about the departure to affected clients, noting a search is underway for a successor.
The goal is to have your clients hear from you first. After you tell your key constituents, selectively release it at a time that makes sense for you. In some cases, posting an announcement to your website without sharing the release on a wire or via email is a perfectly adequate and transparent strategy. If the media calls, you can point them to your website announcement.
How to decide?
Most of us know when our news is likely to become a headline. For second or even fifth page news, being the right “amount” of proactive is the tougher decision.
When news is likely to be covered but unlikely to be the headline, it helps to be somewhere in the middle.
If news affects only a small number or has a slim chance of getting picked up, it makes sense to wait to react to media inquiries. Examples of this would include: changing portfolio managers on a smaller fund, expecting an employee departure or the layoff of a small number of employee as part of a reduction in force. Being prepared with a written statement and promptly responding when you receive an inquiry may be sufficient.
Media relations pros recognize that if you are only proactive and forthright with positive news but bury your head in the sand and fail to respond to media or aren’t transparent with negative news, you won’t be able to build meaningful and lasting relationships with the media. But the truth is, announcing news doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Smart professionals recognize the sliding scale between reactive and proactive announcements and are able to gauge their response to each situation.
The 24-hour news cycle has altered forever traditional views on “timing” the release of company statements.
In general, most companies prefer to post earlier in the week than later. Tuesday is a favorite day to post proactive news. And, many financial firms try to avoid posting during market hours so premarket or 3-5 p.m. tends to be common.
Of course, there’s still the instinct of wanting to bury negative news by posting late on a Friday—but be careful of that, reporters have long caught on to that trick and many are on high alert!
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