Does the ‘bad news Friday’ approach still work?

September 24, 2013  |  Rebecca Harris  |  Comments

Companies in crisis have long resorted to releasing bad news on Fridays, particularly after the market closes. The rationale is that’s when investors and readers are paying the least amount of attention. It’s no coincidence, then, that BlackBerry pulled the old PR trick when, late Friday, the troubled tech company announced it will slash 4,500 jobs, or about 40% of its global workforce (ahead of Monday’s announcement of a proposed sale).

Was BlackBerry’s communications strategy a smart one? Or, in this age of 24/7 news and social media, can companies really bury bad news? Marketing asked some top PR professionals to weigh in.

Greg Power, president and general manager, Weber Shandwick

It is no longer a strategy to try and bury bad news on a Friday. This worked 20 years ago when governments dropped their bombs Friday afternoons as reporters were hurrying away from Parliament Hill to get home for the weekend. It also worked well because Friday was a natural end to the news cycle and the two-day break over the weekend might well produce another news story that made your bad news seem pretty insignificant and lead to it being dropped it from the agenda.

That world does not exist anymore. It is a 24/7 news cycle and it does not matter which day your news falls on – it is going to get dissected, rated and commented on in social media immediately. Reaction in that channel sometimes becomes a story in itself as an indicator of how customers are responding to your difficulties. Companies need to participate in the online conversation if they want to shape the narrative and that is easier to do with all hands on deck in the office and not when everyone heads out the door for the weekend.

When bad news strikes it is critical to get the facts out as simply as possible and not hide behind corporate speak, which makes you look weak and evasive. Take the pain quickly and then just as quickly establish the message you are driving through the coming weeks. The problem for BlackBerry is the road forward is not clear and they are not fully in control of their destiny or their message right now. Missing the BlackBerry Messenger launch date on top of the bad financials just compounds the issue.

The real danger for them is the narrative of a corporate death spiral will set in cement before they articulate their future and then it may not matter much what they say. They have lost so much of the intimacy they used to have with the customer experience and the resulting storytelling that drove the passion around their devices during their phenomenal growth years. They have a really tough communications challenge right now and you’ve got to hope they get it right because the company is so important to Canada’s technology industry and Canadian jobs.

Gayla Brock-Woodland, president, MSL Group Canada

I don’t know about their choice on timing, so I’m not going to judge that. But my point-of-view is that bad news is bad news. The timing of the announcement isn’t the story. And the time and way the company released the information is unlikely to change the resulting coverage which is bound to be negative because it is about the decline of an iconic Canadian company, significant job reductions and possible impact to the economy of a region.

What’s more important is what the company does next. How will they creatively reframe the company that will create new value in the marketplace? All of Canada is rooting for them to succeed.

Kenneth Evans, senior vice-president, Apex PR

BlackBerry had little alternative but to issue the release concerning mass layoffs Friday. The news of the company cutting its work force by 40% had already leaked earlier in the week (unfortunately juxtaposed with the announcement of a new product) and it was incumbent on the communications team to clarify and indeed quantify the rumours for reputational and shareholder reasons. In this case, any perceived advantage of issuing bad news on the wire Friday afternoon was null and void given the already intense media scrutiny the company was under.

Which brings us to the general strategy of leveraging so-called “slow news Fridays” to announce bad news. It’s a bad idea and I don’t think it works. Firstly, news issued over the wire Friday afternoon, particularly from a publicly traded company, is likely going to get extra scrutiny from newsroom staff. There is already a built-in suspicion among the media that something contentious (and as such newsworthy) may be at hand. So if the release is communicating bad news, it’s very likely going to get more attention than it otherwise would. Secondly, trying to bury bad news by leveraging certain times of the day and week is increasingly naïve. The news will be seen by someone of influence – be it a reporter, blogger, consumer or investor – and the brand will be accused of obfuscation or other negative comments that whittle away reputation.

Daniel Tisch, president, Argyle Communications

Announcing bad news late on a Friday is an old PR tactic that’s ready for retirement. In a 24/7 news cycle, the risks often outweigh the benefits because of what this telegraphs about a company’s values and self-confidence.

If the timing of BlackBerry’s layoff announcement was designed to minimize attention, it didn’t work. The news still lit up social networks and landed on the Globe and Mail’s front page. If the timing was driven by business or HR considerations, there’s risk in both domains. Even when such tactics reduce coverage, they can undermine a company’s reputation for courage and transparency, potentially harming relationships with employees, shareholders, analysts and journalists. In a subtle but significant way, the timing reinforces an image of a company with a grim future.

Since nothing can turn bad results into good news, we counsel clients to focus first on the values they wish to convey. It’s usually critical to address problems honestly, take responsibility, show concern for those affected, seek feedback from stakeholders, and communicate a vision for better days to come. The challenge is achieving that elusive Churchillian balance: brutal honesty about the present coupled with authentic, credible confidence in the future. Effective communication is impossible without dialogue, and dialogue is difficult when you make an announcement on a Friday at 3:15 pm.

The next step is equally critical: how and when will you mitigate the bad news with something more positive about performance, strategy, or both? If you don’t have a clear view on this, it’s sometimes better to delay a bad-news announcement if you can. Sometimes, a simultaneous announcement of good news can serve as a counterbalance to the bad; at other times, it’s wiser to take your lumps today and save the better news for tomorrow.

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