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    The Department of Defense’s Principles of Information provide the overriding parameters guiding each military service’s conduct in distributing information both to internal and external audiences. The principles state that upon request each service will provide organizations and private citizens with information, even if it embarrasses the service, invites unwanted criticism, or both (Joint Pub 3-61, 1997; Field Manual 46-1, 1997; U.S. Marine Corps, 1995). The principles require each service to engage in public affairs, with the sole purpose of expediting the flow of information to the public. Thus, each service employs public affairs officers to accomplish the goals set forth in the principles.

    Public affairs officers and the services they represent generally interpret the above guidance to mean broad and aggressive distribution of information that can be termed neutral or good. Such information will not bring harm, embarrassment, or discredit to the military services. However, the principles strongly imply that bad news, which has varying degrees of severity and can embarrass or discredit the services, must also be released. Most public affairs officers know that bad news must be released, per the principles. The key question is when bad news should be released.

    While review of available literature on bad news commmunication strategies did not show any conclusive argument of the when question, acknowledgment of human nature and weaknesses illuminates this pivotal question. Most scholars would acknowledge that humans generally do not want to be the bearer of bad news, especially in government and business. For in government and business, there are real, psychological, and emotional rewards and punishments that accompany delivery of good vice bad news to constituents. Thus, the question of when to deliver bad news can be answered by another question: how long can the "bad news" issue be kept a secret? In the end, the public relations and public affairs strategic approach to bad news is to delay proactive acknowledgment or public release of the information for as long as possible (Martinson, 1996). Tactically, release of bad news generally occurs only in response to a direct media or public query, or when public avoidance of the issue is impossible. At this point in time, deliberate deception becomes an option. Deception shall be briefly discussed in this paper; however, per the principles of information, deception has limited utility in government public affairs.

    Despite prevalent avoidance tactics in the strategic approach to handling bad news, continued evolution of the public relations/public affairs discipline implies that a change in approaches might be beneficial, if not necessary (Martinson, 1996). As shall be shown, the evolution is from management of information to management of relationships. Given this new responsibility, open discussion of bad news between a military source and its constituencies might have real value, as contrasted with old ways of doing business. Of note is the critical differentiation between routine bad news and crisis bad news. This paper focuses on bad news that is routine and common, rather than bad news associated with a genuine crisis. Different rules apply in a crisis. While release of bad news can be deferred in day-to-day activities, deferring release in a crisis is sinful.

    This paper considers the key question of when to release fairly routine yet unpleasant bad news, and concludes that over time the practice of proactively releasing bad news can be good news for the military’s evolving relationships with its constituencies.

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Updated: July 22, 1998