How and When To Get Ahead of the Story
Ceisler Media Senior Director Kirk Dorn says the Hunter Biden media strategy may offer a good example – but sometimes being too proactive can backfire.
Last month Hunter Biden disclosed he was under federal investigation over his income taxes. He declared that a “professional and objective review” would show that he acted legally in his tax dealings. He also said he was going public because he had been notified only the day before that he was under investigation.
But why did the son of the incoming president deliver this bad news about himself? Why not wait until the news came out and then comment?
The answer is fairly obvious: He calculated that the bad news packaged from him would create coverage more advantageous to him than waiting for the US attorney in Delaware to make the announcement. You often hear people refer to this as “getting out in front of the story.” That may sound smart and simple, but it is often neither.
The Hunter Biden case raises an important strategic question for organizations or people dealing with a negative situation that could harm their reputation: If you believe authorities will at some point go public with harmful news, is it in your interest to beat them to the punch so you can shape the narrative on your terms?
Like so much of the work we do in crisis communications, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer.
The most compelling reason to use the proactive approach is that it allows you to put the situation in the most favorable light.
It also portrays you as credible, willing to put your own bad news out there rather than hiding from it. And you get to explain the steps you are taking to fix the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The public and journalists might even give you points for coming clean.
A pivotal point in your consideration is determining the odds the story will ever be published and whether you feel the problem can be safely handled internally. For example, say your company gets a scathing audit showing you lack proper safeguards and procedures. That could become a story if the investigator (inspector general, auditor general, city controller, etc.) wants publicity for exposing your poor or unethical operation.
But because audits take a while, you may have already made changes that render the audit outdated by the time it is issued. If you are being accused of “waste, fraud, and abuse” but have already corrected the problems, chances are there’s nothing to see here – no story. If you had been proactive there would be a story – which could lead to more stories. But because you have already corrected the issues, you have your defense readymade in the event a media outlet gets a tip and wants to do a story. You even get to thank the auditor for identifying problems and giving you a roadmap to fix them.
Probably the most consistent cases we see deal with are HR issues, such as sexual harassment, impropriety, or discrimination. Companies that contact us while the situation is emerging have great success in putting out the fire. In some cases that may mean being proactive in telling a good story about how the company worked together to resolve an issue and set new policies. In others, if you have satisfied your employees, there is no compulsion to reveal you even had a problem.
There are some who say bad news is always better coming from you than from someone else. That may be true. But the bad news doesn’t have to come from anyone in many cases.
There are many questions to consider in all crisis cases but none trickier than making this determination and having a Plan B.
If you have a trusted strategic communications expert working for you, the time to consult with them is before making these decisions, not once the media is up your keister.
There was no indication that the US attorney in Delaware was going to say anything about Hunter Biden until the investigation was complete, yet Hunter wanted to “get ahead of the story” and show us he is transparent, trustworthy, and innocent. I get it. But if he does in fact end up being charged, he won’t score any points for having broken the news.
Just so no one misinterprets my words, we would never recommend or take part in a cover-up or lie. But if you find yourself in a predicament, please keep in mind that in some cases there may be little to gain and a lot to lose if you needlessly or prematurely announce your own bad news.
Kirk Dorn is the Senior Vice President in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office.