12/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

10 Tips for Communicating in Tough Times

How do you manage bad news when you know that corporate credibility is in the dumpster?

This has been a challenge for a while, but as long as it was only Enron and Worldcom -- a couple of bad boys in the boardroom -- you still might have hoped for an open-minded public hearing.

No longer.

Multi-millionaire Wall Street CEOs stood before Congress -- and before the American people -- just weeks before their businesses imploded and swore that their madhouse mortgage adventures were working out just fine. Now, whether we assume they were incompetent or dishonest, we still know they couldn't be trusted.

That leaves the rest of us facing a public that is appropriately skeptical. What's worse, thanks to the economic damage our failed colleagues have inflicted, we're all likely to be wrestling with bad news in the coming months. These are business challenges that don't need to be fatal, but could be if the news leaks out badly -- if investors, clients or customers start heading for the hills.

So, with that in mind, here is some news you can use: 10 tips that have emerged over a public relations career of dealing with difficult announcements. These might not save your business in bad times, but they will give you a fighting chance.

1. Prepare a Communications Plan

If the current market, or any other factor, is presenting a major challenge for your business, make sure that you are ready to respond publicly as necessary. Prepare a timetable. Set out a list of strategic messages. Pick (and train) a spokesperson. And prepare for the tough questions. It's best -- if not always possible -- to control the timing of negative announcements, but you should be ready, one way or the other, when reporters start to call.

2. Rip the Band-Aid Off Quickly

Once a bad news story breaks, it's best to release all the details as quickly and forthrightly as possible. It's much better to suffer one very bad day in the media spotlight than to become a regular bad-news feature as details dribble out over time. There are exceptions, but getting your whole story out quickly, is usually the fastest way to get off the front page.

3. Bad News Starts to Stink When it Gets Buried

There are two kinds of news releases: candid releases about successes and failures, and baloney sandwiches with bad news hidden between thick layers of promises and excuses. Dressing up a horrible story might make the boss feel better, but a glossy wrapping on a sordid tale will only irritate reporters and insult stakeholders.

4. Choose Your Spokesperson Well

A well-informed, credible and sincere spokesperson can be a blessing in any crisis. But a spokesperson who is evasive, defensive and combative -- one who takes tough questions personally -- will arouse suspicion and, potentially, fear. So, choose carefully. Identify a natural communicator who is trainable -- and then train them. Choose someone who is quick to grasp technical issues, but plainspoken. And choose an employee, not an outside consultant who may be seen as a "spinner". The spokesperson doesn't need to be from the executive suites, but they need corporate support and authority to answer reasonable questions or explain, quickly and politely, why not.

5. Don't Launch Your Story Till You Know Where It Might Safely Land

Forthrightness is a virtue, but there is no point rushing out to talk about your troubles until you have crafted a potential solution and a plan to put the elements of that solution into effect.

6. Accentuate the Positive

Again, you can be up front about a problem without dwelling on it. If your sales are off, but your cash position leaves you well-armed to weather a recession, say so. If you are laying off employees to reposition the company on firmer ground, say so. Most readers/investors/stakeholders are aware that we're in tough times. But they'll be happy to hear compelling news that better days are ahead.

7. Correct Negative Rumors

It's risky at the best of times to ignore the news, and it's always a good idea to correct factual errors in print or television stories about your business. But it's particularly critical in times of uncertainty that you act quickly to rein in faulty rumors. Negative stories that might have no credibility at all in normal circumstances suddenly sound feasible when some of the biggest financial institutions in the world have collapsed in failure. So, answer the phone -- or call reporters directly. Make sure the news -- good or bad -- is accurate.

8. Listen: It's the First Best Step in all Communications

Whether you're thinking about your customers, investors or employees, the key to good relations often rests in paying attention -- in listening. While not paying attention is at the root of most public relations problems, listening builds understanding; and responding to what you hear builds relationships. Always try to look for new ways to get feedback. Conduct surveys, book tell-me-more meetings with clients or customers, have coffee with your employees. Be sure that you know what your workers, customers and investors think about you, your business and your products.

9. Make the Most of Social Media

The internet, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, websites and blogs beyond number have changed media forever, making it harder to hide bad news, but easier to convey your message. Social media allows you to speak directly to your customers, shareholders or stakeholders and to hear directly back. It allows you to make information widely available without relying on the filter of conventional media. You ignore it at your peril, but if you embrace it, you'll find untold -- and previously impossible -- advantages.

10. Do the Right Thing

This, ultimately, is always the right advice if you are serious about building and protecting a good reputation. Reputable companies all follow this path: 1. They do the right thing. 2. They are seen to be doing the right thing. 3. They don't get #1 and #2 mixed up. That is, they don't treat the crisis simply as a public relations problem. Nor do they assume people will automatically understand or believe that they have done the right thing. Hard times usually offer an opportunity for struggling businesses to display their true character. This is the way to ensure that opportunity works in your favor.

James Hoggan is a 30 year veteran in the Public Relations field and is the President of the award-winning public relations firm, Hoggan & Associates