Dealing with the Adverse Story

When a story breaks dealing with disaster, accident, adverse reaction, or scientific or technological failure, the PIO should have a statement for the media that reflects all the facts as viewed by the institution or organization. Try to get the statement ready before the media calls and to produce background material that will help the media put the story into perspective. When a journalist calls, he or she is usually anxious about making the next edition or broadcast and cannot wait the few hours you need to gather facts and prepare a statement. Your factual response and point of view might be left out of the story if they are not ready in time.

The general rule in handling adverse stories is to "tell it all and tell it fast," when the story breaks. Although it may be tempting to downplay bad news, such a tactic may only make your organization look foolish. Also, failure to release all the information at once only leads to a series of stories about the problem, rather than one or two.

You the PIO may also be asked to publicize stories that, while positive overall, include unpleasant aspects such as mistakes of judgement, disagreements with other research groups, unexpected outcomes of experiments, etc. The best policy by far is to state clearly to journalists those aspects of the story in the release, even if they may not deal directly with the story at hand. Providing such information up front allows journalists to include it in context in the story and avoids the possibility that journalists will find it necessary to write a follow-up story focussing on a negative aspect that was not included the first time.

For example, when a well-known cancer researcher released information about a promising new treatment, he neglected to reveal that one patient receiving it had died, apparently partly because of the treatment. The researcher said he had not mentioned the patient because the news release concerned only those patients on whose treatment he had reported in a newly published scientific journal article. However, journalists quite correctly wrote a follow-up article concentrating on the unreported death, and the researcher found his credibility called into question.


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