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28 September 2023  •  Jim Carden - Principal Consultant, Campaigns and Digital Reputation

“Taking out the Trash – Managing the 24 hour news cycle when the proverbial hits the fan”

Jim C

Bad news is hard to break, especially if you are a brand, a celebrity, a government or indeed anyone with a reputation to protect.

And bad news has a knack of landing at the worst possible time. It can kill a product launch or create an embarrassing distraction from important initiatives.

So, when is a good time to release bad news?

Donna: What’s take out the trash day?

Josh: Friday.

Donna: I mean, what is it?

Josh: Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday.

Donna: Why do you do it on Friday?

Josh: Because no one reads the paper on Saturday.

Donna: You guys are real populists, aren’t you?

- Scene from an episode of West Wing

The reality is, we don’t always have a choice when it comes time to disclose less than favourable information to staff, clients, consumers media and other stakeholders. 

It may be a product recall with urgent health or safety issues; it may be a need to issue information that could impact on the amenity or convenience of a community; or it could be an announcement required under a listed company’s obligations to disclose material information that might have serious financial implications.

As professional communicators, we don’t always get the luxury to choose.

And even when we do, we need to ask ourselves, what are we trying to achieve? 

As we have seen with many corporate indiscretions in recent times, sometimes a backlash against an apparent strategy to minimise the damage of the disclosure bad news is worse than the news itself. 

In the communications business, some call this ‘taking out the trash'. Typically, it involves withholding bad news until a time when the public and particularly the media are otherwise distracted. It could be a Friday afternoon, or it could be the day before Christmas, or the middle of the June school holidays - or even the day the Government cancels the Commonwealth Games.

The apparent wisdom is that people are focused on their weekends, their sport, their holidays. Media are usually operating at a lower capacity and are likely to have filled all the news bulletins and news pages. The ‘media cycle’ is assumed to be slower on a weekend.

Putting out the trash at these times, so the thinking goes, limits the exposure, gives time for the news to evaporate, and provides a fig leaf of ‘transparency’.

But are those days over? Does the ubiquity of news, driven by the rise of social media and self-styled citizen journalists, cancel what could be seen to be a clever tactic, particularly practiced by government and corporate spinners? Does the news cycle no longer revolve around the traditional media model?

At the end of the day, the public aren’t as easily fooled as some might think – and the political media in particular are hyper-alert to ‘smart’ tactics by their PR counterparts. These days, media are so alert to the tactic that they often go back and review announcements on super busy days, and then do stories on the timing of the ‘drop’. And the gossipy diary columns and ABC’s Media Watch also love to embarrass companies and organisations trying to be too cute.

So what could you do instead?

You could just issue a media release in normal hours and prepare your team with a disciplined set of key messages and FAQs and hope it doesn’t get traction. You’d avoid the ‘trash’ accusation, but could you be doing more?

Why not think about picking up the phone and speaking to a key journalist or two. They are often grateful for the background, are usually fair and will give you the credit for getting ahead of bad news. Plus, they’re likely to respond more positively when you have some good news to spruik.

Whatever you do with media, don’t let this distract you from the audiences who really matter – staff, customers, partners, suppliers, communities and others. Take the time to reach out to these important stakeholders to provide the context or background to your news. Otherwise, they’ll learn it through the media and you may find yourself fighting a series of bushfires on multiple fronts.

It’s also important to take the lead internally – as a communications professional, you’re paid for your insights, experience and advice, so be prepared to have the difficult conversations with internal stakeholders who may be pushing for the trash option.

Whatever you choose to do, rather than adhering to old notions of communicating cynically to your audiences, your thinking should be guided by the communications fundamentals: articulating a genuine, authentic message, backed by doing the right thing and communicating and engaging with your most important stakeholders first.

Yes, reputations take years to build and can be devastated in a heartbeat, but don’t let the way you tell your story add to the debasement of your own reputation.

At Bastion Reputation, we help clients be their best on their best day and be the best they can be on their worst day. 

As parents, we often tell our kids to own up when they’ve done something wrong. 

We tell them to “do the right thing”.

So why shouldn’t we do the same? 

It actually feels pretty good when we do, and we are a pretty forgiving species when it all comes down to it.

So what do you do when the proverbial hits the fan? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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