Breaking Bad News First: The Press Release and Who Speaks

by admin on June 7, 2017


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

The first thing to do is to thoroughly understand your subject matter.

Write the release as a news story. Depending upon the complexity of the issue, this may be the longest news release you have ever written.

Some believe that your top executive should take the lead and respond to the questions. I would suggest, however, that this tactic provides you very little wiggle room.

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 second in a series of articles on, “Breaking Bad News First.” See the first article at Breaking Bad News First.


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.


Tips for Proactive Bad News Releases

There is an art to breaking bad news first. It allows you to control events and minimize the damage. The first article in this series (link above) provides 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.

The first thing to do is to thoroughly understand your subject matter. Do whatever is necessary. If this means spending days with lawyers, physicians or technocrats, then do it.

Begin drafting policy statements that will eventually be the heart and soul of your efforts. Ensure that everyone is comfortable with what is being written. Keep it simple, clean, and clear. This will be much harder than it sounds if you are working with technocrats; to them, nothing is simple, they revel in the obscure. Ensure that your words resonate with the average person.

Once your policy statements are in hand, begin drafting a press release. Write the release as a news story. Depending upon the complexity of the issue, this may be the longest news release you have ever written. The length of the release allows you to provide the basic components of the story and important background information. You may choose to address the history of the problem, research issues, regulatory matters, court rulings or anything else that provides context.

I would suggest a twofold media release. The first part should be relatively short and focus on the basics and answer who, what, when, and where questions. Hammer away at your communication objectives.

The second should answer “why” related issues. It is crucial to have remedies mapped out but try not to box yourself into a corner by being too specific. Leave some wiggle room. You cannot foresee everything the future holds.

What you’re trying to do is to create is a self-contained press release. This document is so complete and so well written and is so easy to read that virtually anyone in the media and public will understand its premise and the actions taken by your organization.

Instead of reacting to a story offered by an investigative print journalist (with his or her negative spin) that all other media feel compelled to follow; you have spread your story evenly among all media in your market. You gave them everything they need to come to their own conclusions, but maximized the potential for fair and respectful coverage.

You may be surprised to find that a considerable number of reporters incorporate much of your media release into their stories. The package is so complete and easy to read that it may not be necessary to come to you immediately for further information.

It is not an exaggeration when I state that some radio news people read my media releases verbatim and that it was the foundation for many newspaper articles. Only television reporters need additional, immediate hand holding because they want on-camera interviews and visuals.

Your Work Is Far from Done

Even though you may have the best news release of your career, your work is far from done. Carefully selected (or created) well-written documents, photos, audio, or video must be placed on the front page of your website. Needless to say, the website address needs to be in your news release.

The idea is to keep news organizations busy with your documentation. If they are designed to meet the needs of the media, then that is where they will stay on day one or possibly even day two. If you’re lucky enough to take your detractors by surprise, it may take them an equal amount of time to read your materials and create a response. Media may talk to them (and undoubtedly will) during the first or second day but they may be too disorganized to offer an effective response.

Enjoy yourself. It will be a rare time in your career when you will face an extraordinarily difficult problem and at the same time have all of your ducks in a row. You have consensus, written policy statements, an easy-to-read media release that focuses on your overriding communication objectives, supplemental material and descriptive statistics that provide context attached to the release, and additional documentation (as well as your original release) posted on your website.

Who Speaks?

Are you done? Hardly! Now that you have all of this in place, you need to establish who will take the speaking lead and answer questions. The speaking role often brings a considerable amount of disagreements.

Some believe that your top executive should take the lead and respond to the questions. Many will suggest that your executive has no choice but to take the primary speaking role. I would suggest, however, that this tactic provides you very little wiggle room.

Placing your top executive into the fray on day one leaves you with no place else to go. He or she cannot float trial balloons or try to gauge the effectiveness of your written materials or ascertain the mood of the media. After all, this person is the top executive. He’s supposed to have all the answers.

It’s very difficult for him to say he doesn’t know but will research the issue and respond later in the day (as you would).

I would suggest that day one and possibly day two responses to media inquiries belong to the senior spokesperson. It’s the job of a spokesperson to take the heat. The spokesperson gauges the media’s response, ascertains the viability of strategies, and assesses the talking points of your detractors.

Let the most experienced spokesperson report back to senior executives about the progress of the plan. When you feel confident that the situation is reasonably in hand, then suggest access to your top executives.

Executives need to be thoroughly briefed on all possible negatives (and their appropriate responses) before taking center stage. Do not let their feigned “overconfidence” impede a candid appraisal. Remember that many directors don’t have a clue about the minute details of their organizations.

Everyone who performs a speaking role should be encouraged to speak from the heart as appropriate. It’s okay to express anger or frustration or concern as long as the speakers remain in control and offer a plan for the future.

Dignity plus concern can have a powerful affect “if” it’s sincere.

The only exception to “others” speaking during early stages will be the use of technocrats. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, personnel specialists or other subject matter experts may join the spokesperson on day one or two to add to the comprehensiveness of your response.

There are some issues that are too complex for a spokesperson to explain. Depending upon the degree of negativity or complexity of the subject matter, however, the public affairs representative may decide to be the only spokesperson.

As skilled as technocrats may be in their given profession, they can be clumsy in the art of clear and concise communication. Professionals often have a hard time being brief. Brevity may be next to godliness when handling a tough issue.

Also, those technocrats may have played roles in the issue at hand. If so, they may be too close to the problem, and a well-placed media question may cause them to be overly defensive. Depending upon the situation, it may be better to leave the media response in the hands of a spokesperson.

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


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