Public Relations: How Should You Handle Bad News?

Be proactive and control the story

Woman in business suit looking surprised
Knowing how to avoid a scandal can make a big difference. Guido Mieth / Getty Images

If all you had to do was talk about good news, public relations would be easy. But public figures -- politicians and professional athletes, actors, and others -- inevitably must deal with bad news, controversy, and scandals.

How to Respond to Bad News 

This series of posts can help you respond to bad news in whatever form it may take. Why do certain negative stories disappear after a few days while others linger for weeks or months? What key mistakes did public figures recently make when confronted by bad news and scandals, and how could they have avoided it? 

Handling Bad News and Scandals

Bad news is inevitable. It happens to everybody and every organization. But what turns bad news into a scandal? The old saying in journalism is, "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up." Reporters hate mysteries. If they think somebody is stonewalling them or lying, they'll dig and dig forever. It'll become a crusade to them, a point of principle.

4 Ways to Respond to Bad Press

There are different types of bad stories. Each requires a different type of response. What you do will be different when a bad story is factually wrong versus a matter of opinion. And you should react differently when criticized by the public compared to a professional pundit or critic.

Defending Against Rumors, Lies, and Propaganda

Bad news isn't the worst thing you can face. Disasters happen. But rumors, lies, and propaganda aren't the normal kind of bad news. They're much worse. You have to respond differently.

3 Key Lessons from the Charlie Sheen PR Debacle 

We are naturally attracted to mayhem. Humans are also hardwired to care about celebrities and public figures. So when professional athletes, politicians or rock stars self-destruct, people naturally pay attention to the celebrity train wreck. Charlie Sheen's fiery wreckage certainly caught our attention.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminates His Good Public Image 

He had it all: governor of the biggest state in the union, a movie star known worldwide by his first name -- or late name -- and family man who'd married a Kennedy. But the higher they soar, the harder they crash and burn. Arnold Schwarzenegger bypassed PR Purgatory and went straight to Celebrity Hell after it came out that he fathered a child with one of his staff and kept it secret for more than a decade. 

China's PR blunder With the Nobel Peace Prize  

If you don't want reporters covering a story, the worst thing in the world you could do is try to kill it. Nothing drives journalists crazier than being told they can't cover a story, or that whatever you write will never be seen by readers because state censors won't allow it. Censorship and secrecy are the twin pillars of evil in every newsroom. But that's what China did when dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Weinergate: The Fall of a Promising Politician 

How does a random photo on Twitter become fodder for the scandal that might bring down a member of Congress -- a man who many expected to be the next mayor of New York City? Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) had it all: a beautiful wife who works for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a promising career in Congress, a great way with sound bites and a growing presence on television. A single tweet started to unravel it all.

Case Study: The LeBron James PR Disaster 

In the summer of 2010, LeBron James had the world by the tail. He was considered the best NBA player to never win a title, if not the best outright. And then he blew it. In an epic public relations disaster, his free agency and switch to the Miami Heat was mishandled spectacularly. He went from spotless hero to villain in the eyes of many, and there was no reason why this had to happen.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat could have avoided the publicity disaster that happened when he switched from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat. Here's how: (1) Staying humble. (2) Delaying and avoiding the media spotlight. (3) Focusing on the team.