How to BRACE yourself for bad news

Adopting an incident communication plan is essential for organizations

Armed robbery, fraud, data security, disgruntled employees, human error and even the weather — all are situations that can potentially place a company’s reputation at risk.

With more attention focused on corporate wrongdoing and social responsibility, there is little margin for error, whether it is bad news or a true crisis. A delicate balance exists between the good a company does and bad news or a mistake poorly handled.

A documented incident communication plan should be adopted, identifying a designated spokesperson and containing actual templates and sample communication pieces — press releases, internal announcements, pre-built Web pages (called dark sites).

Be proactive, and BRACE yourself and your company for when incidents occur:

  • Assess your audiences 360 degrees
  • Communicate courageous messages
  • Evaluate and monitor the marketplace

Be the first to tell your story: How many times have you seen companies delay communication? Or worse, outright lie and then have to recant? When an incident occurs, it is important to have the designated spokesperson be the first to make a public statement as soon as is feasible, even if all the information is not available.

It is better to be truthful and say, “This is an evolving situation; we’ll tell you what we know,” rather than say “no comment” — or even worse, say nothing at all until someone else breaks your story. Once that occurs, you’ve lost control of your story and are reacting to information in the marketplace. Be it true or false, you are now on the defensive.

Research your facts: Gather all the facts surrounding the event; know what you know and, more important, what you don’t know. Conduct interviews one-on-one with parties initially involved to gather the pieces of the event puzzle, then assemble your management team to put those pieces together. Investigate techniques involve using a series of “W” questions: Who was involved? Who was affected? Who is assisting? What happened? What was the cost — financial, social, emotional? What are you doing about it? What led to this event? What steps are you taking so it won’t happen again? Where did it happen? Where can we find information? When did it happen? When were you first aware of it happening? When can we expect updates? When do you expect a resolution?

It’s best to steer away from the why question, as it tends to put people on the defensive and promotes speculation.

Assess your audience 360 degrees: Look all around. Who has a vested interest in your company and its continued success? Audience identification is the foundation of your incident communication plan. The most visible audiences are the media and customers, but in many cases businesses overlook the importance of communicating with employees (and their families), vendors, competitors, community leaders and government, sponsors, industry groups and other key stakeholders of the company.

Employees in particular need information so the rumor mill is kept at a slow churn. Provide communication from the top, issue fact sheets, talking points and periodic updates and solicit feedback and questions. In addition, use potentially damaging events as training tools, reminding staff how to deal with press inquiries, how to report incidents affecting the business and how to respond in an emergency.

Communicate courageous messages: When an incident occurs, often the first reaction is to deflect, defend and deny. But courage and humility will set you apart in your communications. The truth is what your audiences need, providing the framework for your messages. Identify three to five key messages and then use them consistently to avoid mixed messages and errors.

Evaluate and monitor the marketplace. Scan the environment for the effectiveness of your messages with your various audiences. For internal audiences, ensure that employees have an opportunity to discuss the situation, ask questions and have access to information. With customers, develop systems to track feedback and retention.

For external audiences, be present. Many companies recede from the public eye, but it’s important to be visible, in real life and virtually (social media, blogs, etc.).

When it’s over, allow for closure — issue a final statement reiterating what you are doing going forward, stating what you’ve learned and thanking audiences for their support.

As you walk around your company, think about all the great things that you have accomplished and success you have experienced. Then, think about a public relations challenge threatening everything and BRACE yourself. It can happen to anyone or any business.

Linda Varrell, founder and president of Broadreach Public Relations, can be contacted at

Categories: Workplace Advice