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Problem Identification
    Bad news still does not get better with age (e.g., Blackwell, 1988; Dougherty, 1992; Marconi, 1992). Too often organizations either intentionally or unintentionally make the decision not to report incidents that probably should be shared with the public (Martinson, 1996). While these issues do not always lead to a crisis, they are issues that could be diffused if reported soon after occurrence. Some organizations decide not to report incidents and just hope that the media does not discover the incident. While this tactic sometimes works, many organizations have found this approach to be a recipe for disaster. Once the media discovers the unreported issue, it often becomes magnified and leads to a much more embarrassing situation for the organization.

    There are many methods to handle bad news dissemination (e.g., Blackwell, 1988; Dougherty, 1992; Marconi, 1992). They range from calling press conferences and having a senior person from within the organization disseminate the bad news to holding the information and waiting for a media or public inquiry. Other methods include downplaying the incident and/or diverting attention elsewhere. The problem identified in this paper focuses on the lack of a management strategy in the tactical handling of bad news that routinely occurs within the military at the local base or installation level. This problem is not unique to military organizations, as there are numerous examples of the failure to acknowledge unpopular incidents in all types of organizations.

    The hypothesis of this paper is that the disclosure of bad news in a timely manner will result in an unexpected increase in the level of credibility of the organization in the eyes of the local public. It is not necessarily that the disclosure of bad news in itself has value, but that release of bad news will be necessary as the military installation decides what needs to be communicated to the local community to achieve genuine understanding (Martinson, 1996). There can be no genuine understanding when one side of the dyad withholds information.

    The nature of this problem focuses primarily on the tactical handling of routine bad news at the micro level of military operations. At the smallest practical level, public affairs officers deal with bad news issues pertinent to the military installation. The scope of the problem addresses a military installation’s relationship with its local community. The scope of the problem involves local media outlets and civilian citizens who view the installation as a key member of the community having shared responsibilities for the community’s well-being.

    Though this problem is defined within military parameters, the problem is not limited to military organizations. Because organizations around the country are often plagued with similar concerns, many can learn from the military in how it strategically chooses to handle bad news reporting. Conclusions drawn in this paper can be applied in civilian public relations strategies as well.

    Case studies: Eddie Bauer and Texaco

    As earlier stated, the timeliness of bad news reporting greatly affects how much attention an incident receives and the type of attention received (e.g., Blackwell, 1988; Dougherty, 1992; Marconi, 1992). It often affects whether an issue remains local in scope or goes national. While timeliness alone cannot be attributed to how the message will be received, it does play a significant role in communication management process. Certain cases within the business community support this claim.

    A series of articles that ran in the Washington Post discussed a situation that involved a local Eddie Bauer store and a young teenager (Milloy, 1995). Apparently, store security guards apprehended the teenager while he was wearing a shirt that he purchased the day before. The teenager did not have the receipt in his possession. The guards confiscated the shirt, and the teenager later returned with the receipt. Although the teenager produced the receipt, Eddie Bauer was slow to apologize and acknowledge the significance of the incident, which had racial overtones. After a local reporter discovered this situation, Eddie Bauer was forced to hire a local public relations firm to keep the situation from expanding and gaining national attention.

    After reading the article in the newspaper, the president of Eddie Bauer flew to the area to meet with local officials and got personally involved it the situation. The president used elements of information manipulation theory and diffusion theory to get the company’s messages out to the local public. One of the methods used by Eddie Bauer to regain community goodwill was the delivery of truckloads of new merchandise to shelters throughout the county. The president attempted to bypass opinion leaders in this process by putting Eddie Bauer product directly into the hands of the public, thereby influencing their reaction to the situation.

    In this situation Eddie Bauer took several steps to protect their image. While the articles failed to discuss any real attempt at restitution on the part of Eddie Bauer, the focus of the company’s attention appeared to be aimed at repairing its image through information manipulation. Because situations such as this one are so unpredictable, organizations must respond quickly and are often better off over-responding (Pressler, 1995).

    The Texaco Corporation provided another example of a public relations nightmare when it attempted to deny racial discrimination practices (Frank, 1996). Texaco found itself involved in what it thought was just a routine lawsuit, until attorneys for the plaintiffs produced audiotapes that included comments from senior executives. The audiotapes contained comments from senior Texaco executives using racial slurs and discussing the destruction of documents related to the case.

    According to Frank (1996), although this situation was a public relations nightmare for the company, the president of Texaco was praised for reacting quickly and efficiently to the matter once it became public. The president immediately suspended the executives involved and took steps to review company practices. The actions by the president attempted to diffuse emerging negative public opinions on the company’s character and goodwill. This case is another example of how quick reaction to bad news restored public confidence.

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Updated: July 22, 1998