Breaking Bad News First: Kill The Lawyers

by admin on June 28, 2017


Breaking bad news first can put you in control of difficult circumstances.

Success With the Media

I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results.

I use contents from the book for this article.

Some believe that we should not talk to reporters. I maintain that not talking leaves you without influence; you are committing yourself to a negative story. The trick is to know how to talk to the media.

This is the fourth and final in a series of articles on, “Breaking Bad News First.” See the first three articles at Leonard Sipes.Com.


Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Post-Master’s Certificate of Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University.


Kill the Lawyers

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all lawyers.”

—William Shakespeare

Okay, I admit it; I do not hate the lawyers. I must confess that they have pulled me out of jams. Most spokespeople have a love and hate relationship with all technocrats, but it’s especially intense with attorneys. Lawyers and others of their ilk only see the world as it pertains to their professions. Obviously, attorneys view everything within the context of the law “as they see it.”

If it’s cut and dried, I have no problem with obeying the law. If it’s their opinion, then I have issues, especially if their judgment stands in the way of good communication.

Endless numbers of times throughout the year, attorneys have reviewed the same questions but have come to different conclusions. It’s their opinion, nothing more. The observation could be self-serving. By taking a conservative view of everything, job-related risk is minimized.

The agency or corporation may pursue a policy that average citizens would revolt against, but the lawyer will tell you that everything is fine because it’s legal. You and your corporation could march into hell, and everything would be okay with the lawyers as long as your march fits the letter of the law as they interpret it.

The opposite is equally true; attorneys will often provide advice that is essential to the core of your arguments. They will reason that it is their job to be correct and legally precise. This is how they win court decisions and protect the organization. They do not see a need for their writings to fit the reading level of the general public.

Court decisions can be immensely difficult to clarify. Usually, I do not try. For the majority of court cases, I leave it to the attorneys to explain what’s going on. The issue becomes problematic, however, when it transcends the law and involves the public’s sense of safety or larger policy issues. This is when the public affairs officer needs to do the speaking.

The Wicks Decision

In a ruling with consequences unanticipated by any party to the case, the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) ruled that an incarcerated criminal could obtain extra good conduct credits even though the prison system sought to deny them because he was a violent criminal.

Inmates earn good conduct credits for obedient behavior thus reducing their sentence by five or ten days a month. Violent offenders can earn a maximum of five days a month, but non-violent criminals can earn ten. Prison officials believe that good conduct credits are necessary for the operation of peaceful institutions.

The offender in question (Wayne Frizzelle Wicks) had two sentences for two separate crimes that overlapped (or ran at the same time): one for a violent crime, and another for a nonviolent crime. Inmates with overlapping sentences are common in any prison system. The state felt that the offender had a combined “term of confinement” (with one beginning and ending date) meaning that the two sentences ran at the same time. The state was willing to give only five good conduct credits a month (which equals five days off his sentence) because of the presence of a violent crime in the term of confinement. The offender’s attorneys wanted the state to give his client five good conduct days for the violent portion of his term, but 10 good conduct days for the non-violent part of the sentence.

If you’re confused with what I’ve said so far, then hold onto your hats. The Court of Appeals ruled that the state could not combine two overlapping sentences into one term of confinement, thus reversing many years of interpretation by other courts, the legislature, and the prison system.

The court ruled that under certain conditions, two overlapping sentences (that were previously combined into one) now had to be seen as two distinct and separate sentences with separate beginning and ending dates.

So What?

What this decision did was force the prison system to recalculate the sentences of thousands of criminal offenders. Some individuals who had already been released and were living in the community owed the state additional prison time. Teams of police officers armed with warrants fanned out to recapture them.

Some inmates who were ready to leave prison in a couple days were told that they were to be incarcerated for another six months.

Some inmates who thought they had another six months to serve were told to prepare to leave in a couple days.

So we had three problems:

  1. Offenders in the community who needed to be recaptured
  2. Offenders who thought they were leaving were actually staying
  3. Criminals who thought they were staying were actually leaving (and soon)

Let’s see if you could summarize all this in a press release without scaring or confusing the public.

Kill the Lawyers: Continued

Sometimes dealing with the media is a piece of cake compared to the battles with fellow employees. If the lawyers had their way, I would have been one of those wanted on a warrant and put in prison. At a time when it was crucial for staff to harmoniously work together to accomplish a common goal, we were at odds. At first, everything was going rather well. We decided very early that this was an event that had an effect on the public’s safety that necessitated a proactive release of information. I spent three days sitting with some of the ablest attorneys anywhere while they explained the case and a multitude of others had a direct bearing on the court’s decision-making process.

After three days of attorney instruction, case law review, charts on the wall, plus other visual aids and lots of notes, I was ready to throw myself off a cliff. The attorneys were patient, friendly, and instructive, but I still had a hard time understanding the premise of their arguments and the endless conflicting nature of previous court decisions. There is nothing more defeating than three days of instruction resulting in confusion, especially when you are the one to explain all of it to the media and the public.

To clear up some of my facts, I began the process of creating an easy-to-read media release. I was determined to be so clear and so concise that a person with a sixth-grade reading level could understand my reasoning. This was “law for dummies.”

The Attorneys Disagreed

The attorneys strongly disagreed with my summation. They decided to create their own media release. I would submit to you that Oliver Wendell Holmes or any other Supreme Court justice could not read and understand what they wrote.

It contained more legalese than the contract you signed when you purchased your house. They submitted it to my boss, the state’s Public Safety Secretary, who was also an attorney. I thought that we were all dead ducks.

I suggested to my boss that it was imperative to speak simply to the public, especially if it was possible that they might feel threatened by the situation at hand. Outrageously complex court decisions that have a perceived or direct effect on personal safety can cause considerable confusion and anger.

Many also felt that we owed consideration to the mothers, fathers, and the children of the affected inmates. Thousands of people were directly affected by the court’s decision, and thousands more could be influenced by the publicity.

Now was the time for simplicity, I argued. Even though the lawyers felt strongly that a surgically precise, legally correct media release was called for, I strongly argued for materials and explanations that embraced clear language. In my opinion, anything else caused confusion and endangered the reputation of our organization.


The Secretary of Public Safety opted for simplicity. I provided a media release that was legally correct (in terms of larger themes), but I also added attachments that anyone could understand. I had five pages of release, professionally done display boards that explained the complexity of this and other cases, and the actual court case plus other materials mounted on our website.

I decided to explain the case from the standpoint of the average citizen, not from a tactically correct point of view. A few of our attorneys suggested that some of my minor points were not technically correct. I did not care; I was more concerned with being understood. But as with all proactive releases of complex information, this was just the beginning. There was much more to do before going public.

The website needed attention. We set up a rumor control operation (with a publicized telephone number) and brought in part-time public affairs personnel to staff it.

We ensured that full-time public affairs staff was available. We briefed all those connected to the operation days before release.

We put together press packets. We were ready to fight a public relations battle at a place and time of our choosing. We were successful in being honest with the public while protecting their safety and doing all without creating fear or perceptions of insensitivity to the families of inmates.

Anticipated Problems

All of this unfolded over the course of three weeks. Regardless of how well you prepare, there are going to be problems. Any major story will involve multiple reporters (and opinions) and a variety of news organizations, each with their own slants to pursue. The overwhelming majority of news coverage was fair and accurate. There were stories, however, that focused on human-interest issues.

Many of the offenders who had been released from prison (and were now living law-abiding lives in the community) were picked up on warrants issued by my Department. Some in the media believed that these individuals were sympathetic figures. They decided to focus on the human dilemma of a former inmate living peacefully in the community suddenly surrounded by police officers at his home and dragged off to prison.

The accounts of wives and children who witnessed loved ones taken into custody produced stories that were accurate but reflected unfavorably on the system. We assumed that this (or something like it) was going to happen. It was a public relations problem that we prepared for at the beginning of our campaign. I think that all of us recognize that large bureaucratic entities, whether they belong to government or corporations, are often seen as insensitive to the dilemmas of individuals who are caught in our decisions.

Even though there is great anger and frustration directed towards offenders and the harm they have inflicted upon society, average citizens still expect fair treatment. This expectation also extends to the wives, husbands, and children. So we set up an information line staffed by experts who could give offenders and their families (or anyone) a complete update about what was happening. The majority of callers were wives and mothers of offenders who were trying to make sense of the situation. They seemed satisfied with the information provided.

Symbolic Acts

We did not wish to be seen as stereotypical, insensitive bureaucrats. Sensitivity to everyone is essential to good public relations. If you are going to be proactive with negative news then the exercise involves much more than tactics for media. Any negative news story will have implications for a wide variety of people. How your organization responds to the human challenges created by your news becomes an essential ingredient of how the public will view you during and after the incident. Symbolic yet meaningful acts become very important and could partially define the story.

We need to understand that many individuals mistrust our ability to have a common touch. Some representing organizations forget this point. All of us need to be reminded that we want to be treated with respect and dignity during difficult times. Failure to do so could dramatically sway public opinion.

Meeting the Needs of All Involved

Regardless of the reasons, whether they are moral imperatives or good old-fashioned public relations (known to some as manners) all of us need to strive for decency. Whether the incident is a plane crash, corporate takeover, a defective product that is alleged to have caused injuries, or a complex court decision affecting prison inmates and their families, it is essential to remember that all involve human beings who want to be treated decently. Not doing so is not only insensitive, but it will also convince reporters and the public that you and the organization are dishonorable.

The same philosophy can also be applied to your overall media strategy.

Avoiding press conferences and taking them one at time to avoid a pack mentality can be seen either as a tactic or sensitivity to the needs of the media. The same could be said for virtually anything that I have advocated in this chapter.

Thus, we have our theme for proactively releasing negative news: meeting the needs of all involved. If we are relentless in establishing all parties affected by our decisions, if we are equally accountable for understanding how those parties will be affected, and if we insist upon treatment that the average citizen will see as fair and equitable, then we have succeeded.

There is little mystery to individual aspects of our profession. Whether it’s media accessibility to a spokesperson at 10:30 at night or sensitive treatment to those affected by our decisions, it’s all a matter of simplicity and common sense.

I fully understand that the advice of attorneys and other technocrats must influence our decisions. I acknowledge that product liability or investigative issues or personnel concerns will affect our public relations strategy. Nevertheless, I still maintain that clarity and respect for both the media and all others is essential to how the world will see us now and in the future.

Journalism: Never Apologizing

The dilemma of handling negative news also applies to the media. Those of you who are old enough to remember Mad Magazine (it’s still published today) know the phrase “What? Me worry?” as the philosophical underpinning of its chief “spokesperson,” Alfred E. Neuman. His take on life was that negative events were not a cause for concern. Some say that this philosophy applies to the media when they make mistakes.

“Why the Media is Always Right—Being a Journalist Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry,” was written by Howard Kurtz, a reporter and media critic for The Washington Post (and later at CNN and Fox News).

What makes Mr. Kurtz’s article so interesting is that he offers the same advice to the media that I (and others) advocate. The article covers a variety of examples where the media made mistakes, or had ethical dilemmas in reporting, but were unwilling to come clean and admit their errors.

Mr. Kurtz tells us what we already know, that the media can be just as dysfunctional as any other bureaucracy in dealing with its own bad news. Many within the public relations profession believe that the media displays arrogance when questioned about their own misdeeds.

Kurtz quotes Steven Brill, a media attorney, who states, “The press has a great double standard…. We spend most of the day holding everyone else accountable, and when it comes to holding ourselves accountable, we say ‘This is bad for morale.’ Most of us are a bunch of hypocrites.”

Kurtz continues, “Mistakes are inevitable in a business that processes millions of words and pictures each day. But as difficult as it may be for media types to understand, there are basic rules of damage control that can help stop the bleeding when you’ve shot yourself in the foot (or elsewhere). The press routinely offers such advice when corporations get into trouble…”

Kurtz then goes on to offer familiar advice to the media:

  • “If there’s bad news, break it yourself. There’s nothing worse than watching helplessly while rival media outlets slice you into little pieces. By getting out in front, you get to dictate the spin on the story and ensure that your explanations are included in everyone’s follow-up piece.”
  • “If you admit to a negative, you get credit for a positive. Eating a healthy serving of crow helps shift the spotlight from the original blunder to your valiant efforts to deal with it. A full confession also removes any taint of a coverup.”
  • “Don’t dribble out the details. The best way to turn a one-day story into a two-week saga is to go the modified-limited-hangout route. Put all the embarrassing facts on the table or others will stoke the scandal by uncovering fresh revelations.”
  • What makes the media’s ethical transgressions harder to swallow is our holier- than-thou attitude towards the rest of the world. Journalists can help repair their tattered image by more frequently uttering those difficult words: We screwed up.”

The Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Scandals

I cannot think of any organization that has done more damage to itself than the Catholic Church and its mishandling of the sex abuse scandals at the turn of the century. The fallout continues today.

There were accusations that priests engaged in sexual contact with minors and others in their care. The charges have touched almost every parish in the country. Individual allegations were made for decades, but it culminated in a firestorm of controversy in the late 1990’s through charges that church officials were hiding the true scope of the problem, and reassigned known sex abusers back to parish duties. Some of those reassigned committed similar acts.

Many suggested that higher-ups within the church engaged in a conspiracy to mislead authorities and the public about the true scope of the problem, and the roles they played in protecting priests. Critics suggested that church authorities may be criminally or civilly liable for their actions. The number of multi-million dollar lawsuits seems endless, and threatens the financial stability of the church, endangering many charitable operations. The head of the Catholic Church in Boston resigned over these issues. Other church leaders also resigned.

First, I would like to state that I am a member of the Roman Catholic Church and have been all my life. I have enormous respect for the Church, and endless fond memories of Catholicism and what it has meant to my parents and my family. I have no doubt that the Catholic Church will overcome this scandal and emerge stronger for the experience.

At the same time, I am horrified by acts committed by members of the clergy. I am equally dismayed by the way authorities within Catholicism handled the issue. In my opinion, they seemed more interested in a cover-up than dealing fairly with victims and the issue. I spoke to various reporters who covered the scandals. They told me that representatives of the Church responded dysfunctionality. Church authorities responded to reporter’s questions in a heavy-handed and nasty fashion.

“I’ve had better impressions of corporations caught in a scandal,” said one reporter. “They gave every impression of people who were scared to death of the problems before them.” Considering the scope of the charges, they had reason to be scared.

Regardless of the severity of the problem, how an organization responds can be just as meaningful as the information (or lack of information) they provide. Reporters were uniformly turned off by the often negative or unresponsive style of Church authorities. “How dare you question me,” seemed to be a common description of responses.


According to a Gallup Poll released on December 18, 2002:

Catholics are attending church less often this year compared with the previous two years, and are also slightly less likely to say that religion is very important in their lives.… Catholics continue to say that the church hierarchy has done a bad job handling the sex abuse crisis, providing suggested evidence that the observed declined in religiosity among Catholics is a direct result of the sex abuse issue.”

Additionally, four out of 10 Catholics now say that they are contributing less money to the Catholic Church because of the scandal…. The average percentage of Catholics who report attending church every week over the last year, 31 percent, was 13 points below the average of 44 percent who reported attending church every week in 2000.

Catholics have also become slightly less likely to say that religion is very important in their daily lives over the past three years, a trend that is particularly evident when Catholic responses are compared with Protestant responses. The gap between the percentage of Catholics and Protestants saying that religion is very important was 13 points in March 2000. It is 21 points today.

As said previously, there are times when incidents turn into issues. It is almost inconceivable that this would happen to the Catholic Church. Catholicism in America and throughout the world has built up a tremendous amount of goodwill. Yes, the Catholic Church has problems beyond the sex abuse scandals. But most believe they make decisions in a morally responsible way.

You may disagree with those decisions, but I would dare say the average citizen and the average reporter would give the church the “moral” benefit of the doubt on most issues. But not this one.

Go for the Jugular

The media decided to go for the jugular. The media decided to attack early and often. There were thousands of articles and editorials detailing the problems of the church.

But it gets a lot worse than that. The collective media decided the Catholic Church was worthy of articles that go beyond the sex abuse scandals. Investigative reporters looked at overall church finances and the role of the laity in church operations.

The church was criticized on a wide array of fronts. Editorial and general cartoonists openly mocked church leadership. The Catholic Church did not get the benefit of the doubt. At that moment, they lost all credibility.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued many apologies and enacted a tough new policy. Priests who molest children will now be removed from the ministry. They will be reported to the police. The Baltimore Sun reported in an editorial on, June 18, 2002 that the church “came to this new position only after considerable brow-beating. It was national shame—not a sense of moral obligation or responsibility to the church’s congregants—that inspired last week’s action.” Newspapers throughout the country essentially said the same thing.

National Shame

It’s my opinion that few in the media believed the Catholic Church understood the position that they were in. Many reporters believe the church asked for forgiveness as a strategic move rather than a soulful repentance.

What would have happened if the Catholic Church in America came together and conducted an exhaustive review of the sex abuse problem? What if they had banished their Smoke Blowers and insisted, regardless of the pain and embarrassment, that they were going to tell the truth as a collective whole and take the actions necessary? What would have happened if they decided to fight the battle at a time and place of their own choosing with all necessary materials and research in hand?

More important, what would the public’s opinion have been if church leaders “sincerely” begged for forgiveness and laid the entire process, including effective solutions, out for all to see? What would have happened if they answered all reporters’ questions respectfully, honestly, and openly?

Had the above happened, the controversy would not have raged to a firestorm pitch for as long as it did. The media and the public, in my opinion, would have given the church the benefit of the doubt. The endless articles focusing on other aspects of church operations would not have appeared.

Yes, it would have been extremely painful and embarrassing. The public, quite naturally, would have been outraged. The articles would have been nasty and provoking, but my guess is the media would not have gone for the jugular. The incident would not have become an issue. The problem would have been effectively resolved. The sincerest of apologies would have been offered. The victims would be embraced. The offending priests prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The crisis would have been manageable.

The Catholic Church in America became an example of how not to handle bad news. I, however, remain convinced that the Church will do better and emerge stronger. This is not the first major crisis the Church has faced in 2,000 years, and it won’t be the last.

Success With the Media

For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon at  Your reviews are appreciated.

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