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Hiding bad news has its limits





Hiding bad news has its limits

We are all aware of the trick whereby you release bad news during busy times. It’s terribly cynical, but it usually works because the audience is pre-occupied with other things. They either don’t see the bad news, downgrade its importance, or cannot muster other people to help them respond to it.

Trevor Mallard may have hoped for a similar effect when timing delivery of his bad news about apologising and paying court costs and damages for inferring a Parliamentary staffer had “raped” someone.

The details were released on the day Parliament was engrossed in details of the report on the Christchurch mosque shooting, and the anniversary of the White Island tragedy.

So there was only a small amount of attention to Mallard’s situation. But over the following week the matter was revisited by his opponents, by media, and in public chatter. It was his hearing in front of a Select Committee this week that ensured the pain initially avoided was finally delivered.

This provides two lessons for when the ‘bad news in busy-times’ trick does not work; · When the news is sufficiently bad or salacious that your audience cannot ignore it and are motivated not to let it go, · When there is a ‘set piece’ event that will allow your audience to muster and present their opposition.


There’s a PR tactic called snookering. The idea is that you embrace something said by a decision-maker but reword it subtly into what they did not mean.

For example, Jacinda Ardern responded to a question during the election debates about reviewing Pharmac. She said it was ‘something we can do’ if it would help people feel better about Pharmac. That was not a promise to review Pharmac, but it was intended to sound enough like it to relieve the pressure.

People started claiming Ardern had promised a review. The trap was triggered when National complained that the promised review had been stopped in a Select Committee, forcing the Government to agree to conduct one.

There was another example this month. The Government said it had ‘agreed in principle’ to some sort of trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand with a ‘timeline’ of the end of March. The words were intended to infer definitiveness but leave lots of room to change.

Airlines, airports, and tourism representatives turned the inference into something more definitive than the Government intended. Flights were opened for ticket purchases, staff booked to return to work, and plans were made for an influx of visitors.

The government is being snookered. Come the end of March, expectations are very high that travel will start – because the Government’s inference has been redefined into a promise.

Snookering is possible because organisations use deceptive phrasing to imply things they know people will respond well to, without actually committing to it. It might seem like a clever way of escaping pressure, but if your audience and stakeholders are astute, they’ll force you to do something you never intended.

Do the safety dance

The Safety Warehouse’s “Money Drop” marketing gimmick seems like a disaster because it got the company noticed, but the result was notoriety.

In one important respect the event worked. Many people now know the organisation’s name. Studies show that there’s almost no such thing as bad news. Notoriety gets you remembered, and your name sticks in peoples’ minds longer than the terrible reason you grabbed attention.

It was a relatively short media storm. Safety Warehouse first needed to go to ground and ride out the scrutiny. Now it needs to undertake remedial work to give people good things to associate with their name as the notoriety fades.

Either way, a short “we got it wrong” explanation to its customers would be an easy place to start.

We think the lesson is that if you are attempting a stunt, be ready for the follow up phases. At some stage you will always have to build up popularity the hard and old-fashioned way, by just doing your job well.

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