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Good advice on handling bad news, and lots of it

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Pity the twenty-something PR director at a dot-com company. A year ago, this person worried about how to keep up with good news: the wording of a release about the latest round of venture financing, an executive hire, a customer win, a party to celebrate the first six months in business.

Today, the releases are all about "repositioning" (read: big layoffs, missed financial targets and outright closures). And as anybody reading the daily newspapers already knows, the bad news isn’t restricted to dot-coms anymore.

Experts in so-called "crisis PR" are uniform in their advice, which starts with a simple dictum: Tell the truth.

Janet Diederichs, president of Janet Diederichs & Associates in Chicago, tells clients to resist the urge to lie, exaggerate or omit an obvious, critical part of the story. A 30-year PR veteran, Diederichs also stresses that speed is essential in a world of 24-7 news coverage, and that companies rarely have the luxury of having all the facts before they face reporters, customers and shareholders. "We teach people it’s OK to only know part of the story, to tell the truth as honestly as they can at the time," she said.

But who should be the first to get the news? "Your employees," Diederichs said without hesitation. "If they don’t know the story, you’ll look inept. The first thing you do is brief all your employees who are in contact with customers and suppliers."

"Few dot-coms had a crisis PR plan in place," said Sallie Gaines, senior managing director of media relations for Hill & Knowlton Inc. Along with sister firms Blanc & Otus and Socket Public Relations, Hill & Knowlton claims to have the largest technology PR practice in North America. "I’d be shocked to discover companies surviving this shakeout did not have some kind of financial-marketing-PR crisis plan in place," she said.

That said, Gaines praised dot-coms on one point: They tend to be quicker than traditional companies to acknowledge a problem.

Meanwhile, any dot-com faces a unique difficulty right now: differentiating its own bad news from the bad news of the entire sector. "The clutter takes everyone down," Gaines said.

PR experts emphasized the need to keep communicating—honestly—a specific message. "The plant blew up and destroyed 50% of our capacity, but we still have 50% available," Diederichs said.

Finally, what about that dreaded call from a reporter? "Even though it’s not the attention you wanted, use it to get out positive message points," said Eric Yaverbaum, co-founder and president of Jericho Communications Inc. and author of the just-released book, "Public Relations Kit for Dummies."

Having dealt with my share of stressed-out, sleep-deprived PR people over the years, I find Yaverbaum’s advice interesting, if tricky to pull off gracefully.

More broadly, maybe the current economic environment will prompt dot-com and brick-and-mortar companies alike to stop and reconsider their business plans, not to mention their PR and marketing objectives.

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