As public relations practitioners we have all learned the following about bad news: It almost always finds a way into the public domain.

We have a choice: We can either manage it or be managed by it.

One of the biggest problems with handling bad news is that executives and their lieutenants in many cases wish for it to just simply go away or be swept under the rug. This is understandable human nature, but it is not good communications policy.

For publicly traded companies, failing to immediately disclose “material” information  only to have it surface later will most likely result in SEC fines for violation of Regulation FD (Fair Disclosure) and lead to a series of field days for the plaintiff’s bar. http://www.sec.gov/answers/regfd.htm

Many partisans want to shoot the messenger and skip over the important message, in this case, Karl Rove, the author of “Courage and Consequence,” www.rove.com. His book provides an important lesson about bad-news management; and in particular a missed opportunity that almost cost his boss, George W. Bush, the presidency. It pertains to Bush’s DUI arrest in Kennebunkport, Maine on Labor Day weekend in 1976.

“Over the years, Bush had told a few confidants about the arrest,” Rove recalled . . . “But Bush was adamant he didn’t want it public . . . Despite our mild encouragement to make it public, Bush said ‘no.’

“At the time, I thought most Americans would decide this was no big deal. Bush had been 30, gave up drinking entirely 10 years later, and incident was far in the past. Nevertheless, we should have brought it up at a time and place of our choosing…”

Ah, the time-and-place rule of strategic communications comes to the forefront once again. You can control the flow of information or have that information control you. The intransigence of the chief executive in this case almost cost him the White House, and conceivably resulted in him losing the popular vote against Al Gore.

The story “broke” four days before the November 2000 general election (Isn’t it amazing how negatives can surface at the most inopportune time for your clients, when through your own inaction you allow someone else manage your bad news?)

“Did this last-minute revelation of Bush’s decades-old DUI hurt?” Rove asked. “Yes, a lot. First it knocked us off message at a critical time . . . Second, we had made a big issue of Gore’s credibility and now we had a problem with Bush’s.”

Even though he admits that it is impossible to accurately quantify the impact of the DUI revelation just 96 hours before Election Day, Rove said if just 2 percent of voters changed their minds that meant that 2.1 million votes went into the other guy’s column. That figure is approximately 4x Gore’s eventual 543,895-vote lead in the popular vote and probably cost Bush four states that he lost by less than 1 percent: Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.

“Had he won them, this would have added a total of 30 electoral votes to Bush’s column, which would have allowed him to win the White House without Florida. Receiving a majority of the popular vote and winning the Electoral College by a margin of 305 to 232 would have given Bush a much better start. Of the things I would redo in the 2000 election, making a timely announcement about Bush’s DUI would top the list.”

Engaging in a little Monday morning quarterbacking 10 years later, what should have been the strategy of the Bush campaign team?

●First, convince the principal of the inevitability of disclosure and strongly suggest a management program. Lay out very clearly the consequences and folly associated with the withholding of critical information.

●Second, look at the calendar – the 1999, not the 2000-election-year calendar – for a strategic time and place to make the announcement or to allow the news to miraculously leak. The strategy is to make the DUI arrest ancient news by the time of the 2000 general election.

●Third, figure out the means of disclosure (e.g. deliberate leak, response to a TV interviewer, Drunk-driving awareness event). The 1976 DUI arrest could be seen by the public as a “lessons learned” experience.

Granted that saying all of the above is easier than doing. However, controlling the story on your own terms and dictating the timing is far better than responding to media questions about SEC fines, attorney strike suits or even losing the presidency.

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