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How to Deal With Bad News

Bad NewsInevitably, all organizations have to deal with bad news. Budget cuts. Trimmed hours or closed branches. Parents who want to ban books from the library. While bad news is never good, it can be turned into a positive media message. For example, when a teenage hacker crashed Seattle’s King County Library System’s computer system, closing the library down for three days, the story became the marvels of the technology rather than its failure, thanks to the library’s quick and thoughtful response.

Some bad news you can see coming – budget cuts are generally in the works for weeks. Others, like crimes, cannot be anticipated. Either way, it’s important for libraries to have a crisis communications plan. Here is a link to the media relations page where you can find the document “How to Write a Crisis Communication Plan”: www.ala.org/ala/pio/mediarelations/Default2270.htm

Here are a few tips for handling bad news

Don't overreact

If only one small paper carries the story, only respond to that paper. Don’t send out a release to all your media contacts. If they don’t know about the bad news, you probably don’t want to tell them about it.

Be strategic

If the news is huge, consider holding a press conference to communicate the facts, new developments, and the library’s response or message. It will save you time and resource to hold one press conference rather than take a dozen individual interviews.

Speak with one voice

The most common mistake in crisis communications is to have several spokespeople saying different things. Have one spokesperson, or make sure that all your spokespeople are saying the same thing.

Understand interview topics and formats before accepting interviews

During these times, it is very important to be sure you understand the nature of a talk radio show or TV interview before you agree to go on. Don’t speculate. Know who else will be on the show, if there will be call-ins, and what the host’s position is before making a choice to go on. If you don’t think you’ll be given a fair hearing, it might not be best to accept the interview.

Focus on the solution

Explain how the library is going to address the situation or say that the library is looking for a speedy solution.

Apologize when appropriate

“We apologize for any inconvenience to our users. We are doing our best to . . .” Empathize. Convey caring and understanding.

Have all the facts before responding

Often, when news just breaks, not even the media has all the facts. Make sure you know exactly what is going on before responding to something that could just be a rumor or an exaggerated allegation.

Prepare briefing materials

As soon as you can, have briefing materials for the media, with accurate facts included.

Let lawyers review statements before releasing them

If this situation has legal implications, make sure you consult with a lawyer before making a statement. Avoid “legalese,” but make sure that what you’re saying is ok to say.

Stick to the high road

Avoid criticizing or getting personal with your opponents. Don’t be defensive. Staying focused on your message and on the high road will ultimately be your best weapon.

Excerpted from the American Library Association’s A Communications Handbook for Libraries, published in Summer of 2004. To see A Communications Handbook for Libraries in full, please visit: http://www.ala.org/ala/pio/availablepiomat/online_comm_handbook.pdf.

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