How good are you at handling bad news?

Not bad news in your personal life. I mean: If there's negative news story out there about you or your business, how do you respond? And do you know how to do it quickly enough?

Yesterday, we had an example of somebody who did it right--and fast. But he may have had a lot of help.

The context: the tough FBI inspector general releasing a report about the former FBI director James Comey. (If you need to catch up on the whole story, here's a good place to start, at The Washington Post.)

The real takeaway for our purposes, however, has to do with how Comey managed to publish an op-ed in the New York Times, very quickly after the report was officially released. I have to say: it's a really smart move.

Wait, how did that happen so fast?

And as I saw this happening almost in real time, I asked myself: Wait, did Comey read the report, digest, write, and pitch an op-ed to the New York Times within minutes after the 500-page report came out?

Of course, the answer is no. He didn't do any such thing. Instead, his response in the Times was planned long before the release of the report.

I spoke with one knowledgable source who told me it's possible, maybe likely, that Comey had the right to see the report before it was public, which obviously would have been a great help to him. At the very least, Comey could probably figure out the contours.

Jumping on top of it proactively, so quickly that his response had to be included in the very first news cycle in every legitimate news story about the report, was really smart. As I write this, his op-ed is listed as the #3 most-read story on the New York Times website.

And the sheer speed with which this all happened is mind-boggling.

"Responding to a crisis is 90 percent preparation and 10 percent adjusting to unexpected facts," said Jamie Diaferia, CEO and crisis communications specialist at Infinite Global. "What Comey is doing is no different than the steps Thomas Jefferson and other public figures took to shape their legacies--only now people have minutes and hours rather than months and years."

Whose idea was it anyway?

One big question is whether this was Comey's idea (or his PR people's), or the Times's idea. Their guidance on how the op-ed pages work is five years old, but this part jumped out at me:

"We don't just wait for articles to arrive. Every day we have a meeting to discuss the news, to toss around ideas, to think about which writers might be good on which subjects. ... [O]nce we have accepted a piece, we will do everything we can to make sure it runs on one of our platforms."

In other words, I can imagine some young staffer thinking, hey, if Comey had a reply ready to go, we could publish it instantly. We'd probably get a ton of traffic and help drive the conversation.

So, if you're facing a bad news story about your business, here's a quick guide:

  • Get as many facts as you can about what the story is going to be.
  • Prepare your response and your statement ready quickly.
  • Make sure your spin on the story is available fast, and will reach the same people who are learning about the issue.
  • Be proactive, and reach out to news media who are shaping the story afterward to make sure they see your response.

The Times could not be reached for comment

Even if the news stories are already out there, and they didn't include your response, reach out. They'll likely add it to their existing stories--perhaps even putting your response at the top, since it will then be the newest piece of information.

Which leads me to point out, by the way, that I emailed the New York Times for comment about how Comey was able to reply so quickly, and whether he was allowed to edit his proposed op-ed in light of the actual working of the report.

So far, no reply (well, except for auto-responder to say they got my message). But if they do offer any insight, I'll be sure to update this post. 

Published on: Jun 15, 2018
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