In this study published in the Public Relations Journal, Jo Robertson asks the question: Does it really help for an organization in a crisis to self-disclose bad news and do it quickly?
In this academically-oriented report, she, (I assume she because Jo and not Joe) first shows that while “talk early and confess completely” is a well established maxim of crisis communication, there has been little other than anecdotal or case study support for the idea. No thorough analysis.
In the author’s words, this is what this study attempted to establish:
This study sought to determine whether there is validity to the assumption that a
company in crisis should release all potentially damaging information immediately rather than wait to see whether the information is discovered. Research questions included:
What are the ramifications for a company in crisis that withholds damaging information which later comes to light? Does releasing all damaging information proactively shorten negative press attention regarding the crisis?
The research methodology was based primarily on survey responses submitted by journalists in the WA DC area. The author looked at nine different crises involving both government and private companies, from 2003 to 2006.
There is now research to support what until now has been only assumption with regard
to the potential damage that could be incurred by withholding information. Rather than
assuming information needs to be shared forthrightly, we now know the consequence of
withholding information will be more media coverage, keeping negative information
longer in play and raising the odds of reputational damage. Withholding information
which later comes to light can not only cause additional media attention, but that media
attention may be even greater than the attention initially generated when the crisis first
Ninety-five percent of journalists surveyed said they would be more suspicious of a
company if they found that the company had withheld critical information, or tried to
cover it up, than if the company had released the information proactively. Nine out of
ten said knowing that the company had deliberately withheld information would cause
them to dig deeper and harder for additional incriminating information. And an
overwhelming majority (98%) of journalists say the fact that the company had tried to
withhold information would prompt additional coverage.
If all information is released when the crisis first breaks, journalists estimate their
coverage of crisis stories could likely be over within the first 24-48 hours. However,
when additional information comes to light – even as early as one day after the crisis
genesis – the number of total stories increases. More damaging, though, is that the
total number of stories is more spread out – increasing the length of time the story is
kept “alive” and company reputation can continue to suffer damage. Also, subsequent
attention is often more pronounced and more damaging than the initial spike of media
attention. And since stock value remains low throughout the time period of most intense
negative media coverage, allowing damaging information to seep out gradually can slow financial recovery.
Phew! I’m glad that more objective research (however limited this study may be) confirms what seems very common-sensical. So, if you as a communication manager need to convince corporate attorneys, your CEO or Exec Director, or the senior team that releasing bad news early is a good idea, you’ve got something more than the universal advice of communication experts to rely on. For that reason, this report is invaluable.
But, here’s where I think it is very incomplete. This deals only with media coverage, which as most are slowly coming to realize, is playing a less and less significant role in crises and reputations. What about the new dynamic of social media discussion about crises on reputations? If anything, my sense is that this dynamic increases the need for speed and full disclosure. But, that’s just my sense. We need an academic like Dr. Robertson to validate that.