How to Handle Bad News

Lessons in crisis communication from a presidential hopeful.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #135

So here are the 4 standard rules for handling adverse news:

  1. Be first and be fast

  2. Tell it all yourself

  3. Tell it to your supporters on your home turf

  4. Take responsibility

Mistake #1:  He Wasn’t the First to Break the Story

In this case, Cain’s campaign could have easily broken the news first because according to Politico, they asked the Cain campaign about the sexual harassment allegations 10 days before running the story. He had plenty of time to prepare and to break the story on his own terms. It’s always best to come forward immediately, so that you can define the issue. If you don’t define the issue, others will just define it for you.  

Cain could have simply stated right from the start, “Yes, I was accused of sexual harassment in his past.  However, after an objective investigation, the accusations were found to be baseless. I’m publically releasing all the documentation relating to this matter so we can call stay focused on the important issues facing our nation.”

End of story. But that’s not what happened.

Mistake #2:  He Didn’t Tell All

When the story first broke, Herman Cain denied the allegations. Then he explained one accusation, then later he “suddenly remembered” more and gave different statements about the issue. By revising his story several times, he caused further questions.  

When responding to a scandal or crisis, you need to tell the truth. You can’t sugarcoat. It’s important for you to be the one that communicates all of the damaging information. You need to provide enough detailed information to stop any speculation or rumors that might have already started.  


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.