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The Timing of Negative News: A Lesson from the Boston Bruins

Sharon Merrill Associates Investor RelationsTiming is everything. On Tuesday, one of the “Original Six” hockey teams fired its long-time coach Claude Julien, who in 2011 led the team to a Stanley Cup victory. The Bruins had underperformed in recent years, especially this one, and Julien, who had been the NHL’s longest-tenured coach, was shown the door. The announcement of the firing caused immediate backlash among the media and fans in New England.

What caused the uproar, however, wasn’t the actual firing of Julien, although he certainly had his defenders among Bruins fans. The problem was timing. The Bruins fired Julien two days after the New England Patriots had won Super Bowl LI in historically dramatic fashion. And in what is undoubtedly no coincidence, the announcement took place on the day of Boston’s celebratory parade and rally for the Patriots -- a day when hundreds of thousands of fans clogged the city streets to get a glimpse of their gridiron heroes. The city’s sports focus was most certainly on the Patriots. And that’s what the Bruins were counting on.

Some organizations mistakenly believe you can hide bad news by announcing it on a heavy news day, or on a day when the public’s attention is focused elsewhere.  

Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney actually began his press conference by apologizing for the timing, saying, “Sort of like the weather in New England, I did not pick this day. I apologize that it fell on a day when New England is incredibly excited.” The fact that he felt he had to apologize should have been a signal that, just maybe, there was a problem with the plan. When pushed on the suspect timing of the announcement and press conference, Sweeney explained that having the new interim coach in place would give the team a few days to practice prior to the next game. Not terribly believable.

The strategy backfired, and the media let loose on the Bruins with a vengeance. Several stories hit the sports pages on the poor timing of the announcement. So much for hiding behind the excitement of the Patriots parade. Here’s a line from Boston.com Sports Columnist Eric Wilbur that sums up what many in the press and public were thinking: “Not only is it once again the dysfunctional, underachieving franchise that was handed to Julien in 2007, but the Bruins can clearly add the following to their current symptoms chart: Gutless. Disrespectful. Exploitable.”

So, what can we learn from this event from a corporate crisis communications standpoint? Here are a few tips on timing bad news announcements:

  • First, don’t try to bury bad news. It can backfire in a substantial, credibility-killing way.
  • Stay away from Friday afternoon news releases. Even when the news is positive or neutral, releasing late on a Friday can create the perception that the news is bad.
  • Avoid releasing the evening prior to (and especially on) a holiday. Issuing a release on Christmas Eve, for example, will most certainly generate significant ill will toward your company.
  • Finally, weigh carefully the pros and cons of getting negative news out quickly, versus the timing of the information. For example, if a CEO was fired on a Friday afternoon, or the afternoon before the Fourth of July, think very hard about announcing the news immediately as opposed to waiting until the next business day. Legal counsel may push companies to issue news as quickly as possible. It’s important, however, to weigh the legal risks against reputation management considerations.

When trying to hide bad news, your best-case scenario is fewer eyeballs immediately seeing the announcement. The worst-case scenario has your organization pilloried in the press for obfuscation. It’s not worth it … just ask the Boston Bruins. 

David Calusdian is President at Sharon Merrill Associates. He oversees the implementation of crisis communications plans and proactive investor relations programs. He also coaches the C-Suite in executive presence, presentation delivery and media proficiency, and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues such as corporate disclosure, proxy proposals, shareholder activism and earnings guidance.

Crisis Communications, Public Relations, Investor Relations, news releases, negative news

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