There's No Good Time to Bury Bad News in 2014

It is appropriate that very traditional Michigan learned we live in very non-traditional times.

Just before 1 am Tuesday morning, Michigan's athletic director Dave Brandon released a statement regarding the university's handling of concussed quarterback Shane Morris. If you were following the saga, embattled head coach Brady Hoke had insisted a statement was coming during a Monday afternoon press conference and that would confirm Morris did not have a concussion.

shane morris concussed
Instead, the statement came out roughly 12 hours later. And it confirmed what anyone with eyeballs already knew: Shane Morris was sent back into a football game with a concussion. There are many, many others who will write about the football fallout but as a Director of Communications, it amused me that Michigan had the audacity to think they could slide the bad news out into the ether without anyone noticing.

We live in a 24-hour news cycle in 2014. There is quite literally no time to release bad news. In fact, using an old, tired PR trick only makes the fallout that much worse.

When I began my career as a newspaper reporter back in the summer of 2003, the Friday afternoon press release was a running joke in the newsroom. In that pre-social media world, it was indeed possible to slip bad news out over the weekend. Sure, there was still weekend coverage and the Internet. But many Americans still unplugged leaving the office on Friday afternoon and didn't pay attention to the world at large until Monday morning.

Those halcyon days for PR professionals are long, long gone.

Football has provided a masterclass in the changing dynamics of public relations and the evolution of news coverage. It began when Ray Rice gave his forgetful and ill-conceived first apology for his domestic violence arrest. You may remember it as the press conference where his wife apologize for her role in getting punched in the face by an NFL running back.

The press conference took place on a Friday afternoon, presumably following tried and tired PR rules. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Since no one releases news on Friday afternoon, it is the perfect time to gain a tremendous amount of attention.

I had the misfortune of working from home that Friday and watched the press conference in its sickening entirety. I tweeted several times to show my disgust and they were quickly retweeted. I was far from alone. Suddenly, Ray Rice became a worldwide trending topic for the first time and the Ravens had made a serious mistake: their attempt to hide Rice had exposed him.

Other NFL teams should have learned from this PR blunder. Instead, the Vikings released a statement in the wee hours of the morning to announce the indefinite leave of absence of star running back Adrian Peterson following child abuse charges. Just a day prior, the Vikings had re-instated Peterson before realizing that was a really, really, really bad idea.

By releasing it near 2 am, it gave the impression that something to hide. The University of Michigan, having apparently learned nothing, did the same thing. Both times, the fallout was even worse. Both organizations had to deal with the bad news and the cowardly distribution of news. Who sends a statement to reporters at 12:52 am? Unless it's to announce the killing of Osama bin Laden, it's bad form.

The rules of public relations have changed dramatically in the social media era but it appears few companies and organizations have realized this. So here's my not-so-subtle advice to PR pros: do not try to bury bad news.

If you have bad news, just announce it. You have to convince your superiors there is simply no good time to announce it. If you take the plunge and accept the consequences during a normal time, it will give the public one less thing to be angry about.

Secondly, do not believe for one second you can sneak anything past the general public anymore. Everyone with access to Twitter or Facebook is now a journalist. There will be someone, somewhere who will notice any bad news and start it spreading like wildfire.

If you want to control your message, you need to accept that you cannot. Only then can you start to repair your image.

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  1. There is one exception to this rule: when another story is already dominating the news cycle.

    Example: Just a couple of hours after Rice was suspended indefinitely, the NCAA snuck out the news that it had lifted Penn State's bowl ban.

    1. Interesting. I guess it depends on the level of bad news, but you are right that the Penn St news got pushed down because of Ray Rice.

      I would love to know if the NCAA planned that. They dont strike me as a nimble organization that can change quickly on the fly.


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