Breaking Bad News First: Visuals-Press Conferences-Newspapers-When to Announce

by admin on June 19, 2017


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

Great visuals are vital.

No press conferences.

When do you release bad news?

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 third in a series of articles on, “Breaking Bad News First.” See the first two 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.


There is an art to breaking bad news first. It allows you to control events and minimize the damage. The first articles in this series (link above) provide a basic understanding of the concept.

Once the decision to release negative news has been made, everything else becomes a systematic exercise in basic public relations. The primary difference is that you have the luxury of time to develop the necessary tools.

Visuals/Social Media

So the written materials are complete. You know who is going to handle media questions during the initial phases of the campaign. Now it’s time to focus on your visuals.

Research states that the majority of people get their news from television. The average market will contain three or four television stations (double that in combined or large markets). Television (and possibly radio) journalists will be the primary conduits that allow you to convey news immediately. Thus, preparations for television and radio interviews become a crucial part of your strategy.

The ethics of many television journalists will not allow them to take a pre-prepared video package from your organization (note that this rule seems to be eroding). Either you have to stage an event with appropriate visuals or allow them the opportunity to enter your facilities to take footage. Once again, the idea is to meet the needs of the media in such a way that keeps them busy and out of the hands of your detractors. Note that in today’s budget-conscious newsrooms, Google Earth or consumer smartphone video may suffice.

Have your primary communication objectives or descriptive statistics (i.e., pie charts) placed on professionally done poster boards. Ensure that these are behind you when you do your interviews. Post these materials on your social media channels.

Have displays or cutaways of the issue or product you are trying to explain. Make videos or audio available for explanation purposes. Make sure staff are available to monitor social and mainstream media. If you are going to allow access to your facilities, ensure that they look their best and that trained and trusted staff is there to guide them.

No Press Conferences

I am not suggesting a press conference. As previously stated, interested media should be taken one at a time and scheduled appropriately. Your schedules will never work exactly as intended, but that doesn’t matter.

The purpose of individual scheduling keeps media from developing a negative pack mentality through a press conference format. Please note, however, that major unanticipated events may not allow you the luxury of taking them one at a time. Sometimes, the situation dictates a press conference.

Time to Release

So you’re done. Everything is now in place. Your news release is instantaneously e-mailed or faxed to everyone in your market. For some of us, that could include hundreds of media releases. It must get there by 5:00 a.m. to be available for morning news meetings and drive-time radio. You or carefully selected others are at the ready to take their calls.

Special attention is given to the Associated Press and drive-time television and radio news teams. Call them to ensure that they have your materials.

The rest of the media and the public will first hear of the story as they drive to or get ready for work. With any luck, the initial media response will be as intended. Other news sources will begin to call to arrange interviews and to see your visuals. By noon that day, you will begin to have a preliminary assessment of whether you have accomplished your goals.

By 6:00 p.m. you will know for sure and begin the process of implementing day-two strategies. You will have to make preparations for subsequent days.


Are there exceptions to the above? Sure, there are exceptions to everything in this business. As I have said, everything you do depends on the context of the situation.

For example, you may be aware of a reporter for a major newspaper that you believe will give your issue a fair hearing. I am not suggesting someone who you believe will give you decent treatment as a favor. His or her editor may (and probably will) object. I am suggesting someone known for fair reporting, someone who “slices it right down the middle.”

In times of trouble, I go for the older investigative reporter who has an impeccable reputation for fairness. You may feel strongly enough about this individual to place the entire story in their hands. It’s tough to put all your eggs in one basket but sometimes it’s worth it.

You will have to be aware of competitive issues and the possibility that other newspapers will accuse you of playing favorites. If you have two newspapers of equal strength, however, an exclusive release to one may cause the other to attack.

A Bad News Breakfast

We had a scandalous report about one of our facilities that I wanted to break first for Saturday coverage. I invited a print reporter over to my house on a Friday morning and fixed him breakfast. After his final cup of coffee he stated that he assumed he was there for a reason and, most likely, he was there to receive a negative story about my agency. I handed him the report, told him our remedies and simply asked for our response to be within the first three column inches. I asked for nothing more than fair treatment.

It worked; we got a factual story with our solutions for fixing problems that guided coverage from the rest of the media. Yep, I had to work Saturday to satisfy all others, but it was worth it.

In most cities, there is only one morning newspaper, so it’s appropriate to give an exclusive. The Associated Press and electronic media expect this story to be broken by the newspaper of record.

Television and Radio Journalists

If you break the story through a newspaper then everything else still needs to be in place. The news release must be in the hands of all others (non-negotiable) after the newspaper files its story Saturday morning so the rest of the media can offer their own reports. That means sending it at 5:00 a.m. The spokesperson has to be available for new inquiries.

Note that newspaper reports will make it to their website around nine in the evening so you need to be prepared to respond to others seeking information. Reporters using Google Alerts or other services for the name of your agency will see it moments after it appears on the newspaper’s website. They may call.

Respect for the “electronics” is appreciated and prompts fair coverage. In fact, you may want to have additional resources at hand just in case the article written by your handpicked newspaper reporter is more negative than expected.

Preparation applies to your Web and social media sites. Have the report available that you gave to the newspaper reporter. Some may be surprised by the degree of preparation I’m advocating. What I’m suggesting is becoming more common for everyday media affairs.

Gun Rights

One of the agencies within the Department of Public Safety was the Police Training Commission. This organization was tasked with implementing a two-hour firearm safety course for every person purchasing a handgun within the state. The new legislation caused some controversy. Detractors felt that this was yet another obstruction to their constitutional right to own a handgun. I gambled, however, that the vast majority of people would agree that those who purchased a handgun should have access to a brief, one-time course focusing on safety issues. To most people, it was a matter of common sense.

The standard media release was certainly part of our publicity campaign. But user-friendly materials listed on our website heavily supplemented the release. Users coming to the site could easily find the material through a box on the main page. We also offered self-produced television and radio shows on the topic that were sent to participating networks (which got 230 airings each month). We established who would speak and created our visuals before the press release went out. Even though I felt that most citizens would be supportive of our efforts, I took no chances and created the best possible scenario to ensure success.

When to Release: Unanticipated “Minor” Events

But a well-planned and comprehensive campaign is extraordinarily difficult to do on short notice and during times of competing priorities (which seems to include every working day). You could be up to your eyeballs in day-to-day activities and suddenly find that bad news is dumped in your lap. This is how it usually happens.

Sometimes a fellow employee will wait until the last possible minute before advising you that the dam is about to break. If he came to you a month ago you could have found the time to implement a thoughtful strategy.

So on Wednesday afternoon, a mid-level executive decides to tell you that 50 cases of “alleged” improperly manufactured widgets left the factory three weeks ago. I say alleged because engineers are uncertain about whether the widgets are truly defective. The problem may be a matter of sloppy paperwork or inadequate inspection efforts, but it’s probably not a true defect.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the widgets, even if defective, do not pose a risk to the public’s safety. You and your executives, however, still believe that it is in the organization’s best interest to proactively release the news. You have an excellent reputation with the media and the public, and you would rather error on the side of caution. You want to be forthcoming, but at the same time, you’re looking for as little publicity as possible. This is not a contradiction.

The solution is to release the news via the Associated Press on Friday afternoon, preferably at 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. By this time in the day, most of the decisions for the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. television news will be made. This will mean minor television coverage until Saturday.

Saturday is a good day to break bad news because viewers and readers are fewer in number. You also, however, want Saturday newspaper coverage for the same reasons. You want to avoid the Sunday edition of newspapers because this is the day of their largest readership. Using this strategy may necessitate earlier newspaper notification on Friday (approximately 1:00 to 2:00 p.m.) to ensure that the news desk has sufficient time to develop the story.

The example I provided had its origins in a Wednesday afternoon notification of the public affairs staff. Like most busy people, it’s difficult for you, your associates, and your executives to drop everything on your schedule to respond instantaneously. Before releasing this information to the media, you must still, to the best of your ability, be sure about the circumstances. You still create a comprehensive media release (although much shorter than the one described earlier) and ensure the best possible spokespeople and their availability for Friday afternoon and Saturday-Sunday duties.

Notify the Associated Press or other wire services. Place the release on your website with selected existing materials. You will not have time to go much further than that.

Breaking bad news on Friday for evening and Saturday coverage will often be in your best interest, especially if that Saturday falls into a three- or four-day holiday weekend. By the time everyone returns to normalcy your story could be old news.

This strategy works best for issues that are “resolved” and do not involve significant public or product safety implications. Examples include firings of key staff, completed investigations, or audits that have uncovered problems and solutions have been imposed.

When to Release: “Major” Events

The above scenarios should not and cannot apply to issues that need an almost immediate release of information. If you’re notified on a Wednesday afternoon that 50 cases of widgets “probably” have defects, and they are intricate components of medical devices, then you’re obligated to release this information Thursday morning.

Use the same level of preparation described above. If it means working throughout the night to prepare, then do it. Pushing this kind of news into the weekend will bring charges of endangering the public. With issues germane to the public’s safety, you must be seen as protectors of the greater good rather than bureaucrats trying to save your hides.

Once again, public relations professionals and top executives are responsible for keeping everything within its proper context.


Next, let’s kill the lawyers.

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.

See my website at

Contact me at


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: