December 07, 2021

"Wait for it?" When and how to share bad news

Nearly every day clients ask: should they “get out ahead” of bad news? In the wildly popular musical Hamilton, the title character also faces this dilemma.

Still humming “In the Room Where it Happens” and “It’s Quiet Uptown,” days after seeing the widely acclaimed Broadway musical Hamilton, I had the thought that the lead character - in history and in the play - faced a crisis not dissimilar to some of our current PR clients. Nearly every day we are asked to advise our clients: should they “get out ahead” of bad news and reveal it themselves? Or should they stand ready to respond, waiting to see if anyone finds out first? As this brilliant play unfolds, Hamilton is faced with this all-too common dilemma.

In the play, Hamilton’s archrivals, future Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the scoundrel of the story, Aaron Burr, possess evidence of a devastating secret that could ruin Hamilton. They are envious of the power that Hamilton wields and are desperate to take him down. They had learned that Hamilton was making financial payments to a James Reynolds, payments which they believed compromised Hamilton’s role as secretary of the U.S. Treasury. An investigation ensued and Hamilton was forced to explain that those payments were not political corruption, but rather extortion by Reynolds, the husband of the woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

With this lurid drama hanging over his head, Hamilton takes a drastic and bold step and publishes the “Reynolds Pamphlet,” 1797’s version of an instantaneously viral social media thread. Using the medium of the day – a pamphlet – Hamilton tells his side of the story in great detail, attempting to take the wind out of the sails of his rivals by underscoring his innocence of political corruption while confessing the affair. But did he help himself, or make it worse?

Deciding how to react in a crisis is not math—charting the best course requires experience, judgment, and advice from someone who is not too close to the situation (as Hamilton certainly was to his own). We are often asked by clients—should we say anything at all? And if we say something, what should we say? Unlike math, there is no correct answer.

But one thing is clear: preparation matters...

Whether Hamilton made a critical error in revealing this drama to the world, remains grist for historians. But in today’s world of managing reputational risk, these events provide some lessons to be taken by individuals, companies, and non-profit organizations. Every organization should know the key expectations of a company, an individual or a board in a crisis – audience identification, timeliness, transparency, accountability, authenticity, and actionability. If you have not planned for the possibility of a crisis, or your secrets getting out, it is nearly impossible to effectively pull off these tenets in a way that allows you to maximize the opportunity to protect your reputation.

  1. Identify Important Audiences: who needs to hear your message and how do you reach them first? In Hamilton’s case, he was worried about his peers in government and directed his pamphlet message to them. Some might say he made a huge mistake in forgetting about how the message would be received by his wife, who learned the news along with everyone else.
  2. Be Timely: when a crisis hits, your organization must be prepared to put the CEO out front with video on Twitter, or at least a statement, in a matter of minutes. This is a high degree of difficulty, made somewhat easier by preparing and planning for what you are willing and capable of saying while communicating during a crisis.
  3. Be Authentic & Accountable: although it was more than a decade ago that the BP oil spill in the Gulf was the subject of global headlines, the image of former BP CEO Tony Haywood is still used to this day in crisis trainings to personify deficits in authenticity and accountability. Nothing hurt BP's credibility more than Haywood saying: "I want my life back". That tone-deaf statement crippled his credibility as spokesperson, creating doubt that BP actually cared about the ramifications of its actions. This is why having an authentic and accountable spokesperson is so important to your organization.
  4. Be Transparent: as with Hamilton, when it is time to come clean, move with speed and be clear about what has happened and how you plan to ensure it never happens again. To be able to move quickly and effectively, there's much you can do before that crisis hits. Get your senior leadership together with legal counsel and your communications team to determine how capable and willing you are to be transparent and what that means for your organization and its reputation.
  5. Make Your Words Actionable: following the rise of the racial equality movement in 2020, we witnessed organizations making many promises. However, BLM posts on social media promising results in the DEI space and other supportive messaging of social justice causes often fell flat. These promises were often perceived as performative or rhetorical by those close to the organization, leaving some to believe that these were empty gestures. Fostering genuinely inclusive workplace environments takes hard work. Companies must do that work before “talking the talk, without walking the walk.” Employees know this and will be the first to call out a company’s empty promises. Just like Hamilton’s pamphlet, employees have their own platform to express views.

Personally, I believe Hamilton got out too far ahead of the matter and should have had a statement ready for the day the question was asked. We can forgive him, I think, because at the time he was consumed with saving a fledgling Democracy. While today’s organizations may not be comparably consumed, it is important to think about how you might handle the release of bad news and its repercussions.

By Jill Reilly, Denterlein Vice President