How to Handle Bad News

Lessons in crisis communication from a presidential hopeful.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #135

I typically try to stay clear of commenting on politics, however, no matter your political leanings, everyone can learn lessons from Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s recent crisis communications fiasco.


What Happened?

Herman Cain’s very public, public relations collapse is on par with Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal and with the Exxon Valdez oil spill as one of the most mismanaged communication crises in recent memory.

It all began with a Politico news story that uncovered financial settlements for at least two female employees who worked for Cain and had accused him of inappropriate, sexually suggestive behavior in the late 1990’s. The settlements were paid by the National Restaurant Association, a trade group in which Cain was the top dog.

Of course, that’s not the bad part. Scandals happen all the time. It’s how the adverse news is handled from a communication perspective that matters. 

In fact, how many of you remember a similar allegation against David Letterman? I’m guessing not many. Why? Because David Letterman followed the rules of crisis management perfectly, and made the story go away quickly.  

Rules For Handling Negative News

So what rules did David Letterman follow that Herman Cain didn’t? In general, the standard advice in these situations is to be responsive, to be honest, and to be concerned.

If you don’t respond quickly and honestly, others will assume you’re hiding for a reason.  And if you do lie, then when the truth comes out (and it will), you’ve then created a secondary problem—a problem with your overall credibility.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.