Donovan Group Insights

A Brief Guide to Getting in Front of Bad News

District leaders have to prepare for the unexpected. Despite all your years in the district, bad situations can still catch you by surprise. Today could be the day you get a call from a very concerned staff member in your district. Among all the thoughts running through your head, one of them sticks out the most: “What will the media say about this?”

The media always reports on bad situations. It’s not a matter of if, but when. If you know that story is coming, one of the best things you can do is respond quickly. This will give the public a complete, accurate picture of what really happened. Win over the community, and your district can make it through a bad situation relatively unscathed.

Why should district leaders respond quickly?

When bad things happen, a district leader’s natural instinct is to look the other way. They want to draw as little attention to the issue as possible. District leaders often believe ignoring or downplaying a bad situation will minimize its presence in the media. Local news stations are already covering the story, so releasing a statement would only add fuel to the fire.

District leaders are perfectly justified in feeling this way. It takes courage to speak about bad news in front of the entire community. You and many others in the district would like nothing more than to move on from the situation. You’ll be tempted to not respond in the hopes that bad news will clear up or fade away on its own.

Unfortunately, not responding to the media can actually make things worse. Once the local newspaper publishes a story, it can get picked up by the Associated Press. Then, the Associated Press distributes the story to radio and television stations across your state. Bad news that was contained within your local community can get elevated to a much larger stage.

You’re obligated to not just respond, but to respond quickly. Just one day after a negative event, editorials are already coming forward with their own responses to the story. When you’re one of the first to respond, you have a chance to tell your community what really happened. Responding quickly leaves less wiggle room for editorials, the AP and news stations to come up with their own versions of the story.

Next, we’ll go over some steps you can take to get in front of bad news.

1. Respond before the story goes statewide

When a story hits the local newspaper, your top priority becomes responding as soon as possible. This allows you to shape the story before news outlets across the state can weigh in on the situation. Community members will get to view the story from all angles, ensuring they have the necessary information to establish a well-informed opinion on the matter.

In fact, responding quickly could possibly prevent the story from going statewide. The Associated Press tends to distribute “easy” news stories, which means the story has a very one-sided viewpoint. Stories with multiple perspectives are less likely to spread because it’s harder for reporters to stick with a bad angle. It’s easy to make one-sided stories sound bad, but multidimensional stories hold a lot more gray areas.

You have a few options for responding to the story. You could directly reach out to the local news station and offer to give them a statement. Try to set up an interview with one of their reporters. If you’re too busy for an interview, send facts and key takeaways in writing. The idea is to act promptly, regardless of how you get your message across.

2. Return media calls within the same day

You’ve seen how fast bad news can spread. News stations move quickly, so the sooner you can respond, the better. When bad news befalls your district, it’s immediately followed by a barrage of media calls. You know what they’re calling about, so you’ll be tempted to wait as long as possible before responding. But as we’ve seen already, waiting can backfire.

Instead, do whatever it takes to respond by the end of the day. Reporters are working with same-day deadlines, so if you don’t respond in a timely manner, they’ll run the story without your input. They don’t do this to be mean—that’s just how the newsroom works. Reporters will use whichever source responds to their call first.

The best-case scenario would be to chat with the reporter that same day. Phone interviews give you a chance to guide the conversation and suggest an alternative angle to the story. If you don’t have time, you could ask an assistant to give the reporter a call back. Write down what they should or should not say, along with a few key messages you want the community to hear. Another option is to send a written statement and a cover letter providing context for the information.

3. Ask for corrections right away

Reporters often don’t have all the information they need to tell a complete story. The information they do have can sometimes be incorrect, too. Gaps in the story usually occur when district leaders don’t respond to a bad situation. Incorrect information may originate outside your district or come from upset families. In some cases, errors appear in a news story because what you said was taken out of context.

As a district leader, you’re obligated to get these errors corrected right away. It’s your responsibility to ensure the media accurately depicts your district’s story. You have the district’s best interest at heart, and that involves making sure the public receives correct information.

Once you notice an error, call the news station as soon as possible. You’ll need to speak with the editor about printed news stories. Be specific about the error and what it should actually say. Thankfully, most editors are willing to rerun a story with the necessary revisions. They can also print a note at the top of the article highlighting new information in the story.

4. Tell your side with a news release

When bad news happens, media calls are sure to keep you busy. But that doesn’t mean you should wait for a reporter to contact you first. You know the community will catch wind of the situation one way or another. You might as well be the first to talk about it.

Stay one step ahead of reporters by creating a news release. This gives you a chance to shape the story before reporters can run their articles. News releases can sway public opinion in favor of your district. You never know how a reporter will use the information from an interview. But with a news release, you get to control how information is used and how the public will view your district. While you can’t stop bad news from getting out, a news release can at least help soften the blow.

Many bad situations are unavoidable. When something happens, a district leader shouldn’t try to cover it up. Instead, they should view it as an opportunity to have an open and honest discussion with the community. Tell the district’s story before someone else can tell it for you. If you respond quickly, a bad situation might not be so bad after all.

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