Fifteen years ago, as a young political staffer I wasn’t sure exactly what this phrase meant – apart from the cricketing reference.
If you haven’t yet discovered the joys of cricket, getting on the front foot is a way for a batsman to dominate the bowler and play the game more on their terms.
More experienced staffers soon clued me in on the other meaning. When handling bad news you should fess up before journalists inevitably find out about it, explain what happened and why, and often people will respect you for it. Time and time again I saw the benefits of this strategy.
When faced with bad news leaders have two basic choices: try to hide it and hope that no-one finds out, usually in vain see Coombs and Holladay (2002), or front the media and give your side of the story.
This second, braver, more sophisticated technique is also often referred to as “stealing thunder”.
It is the flip side of one of the other great sayings in public relations, “it is the cover-up that kills you.” People experienced in the practice of PR know that the media will eventually find out about your worst secrets. Often they will find them out from someone with an axe to grind.
When this happens your opponents and critics get their side of the story at the top of the media report, framing a bad story to be even worse.
Studies of stealing thunder by politicians have found greater voter intent, fewer follow-up stories about the politician’s transgression in a national newspaper, less interest among working, investigative journalists in pursuing the story, and shorter, less negative articles about the politician written by college journalism students (Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2005, p. 426)
Obviously the best strategy is for organisations to always to operate in an ethical manner and prevent crises from happening as much as they can. But often leaders and organisations must make a choice where stakeholders have opposing views. Sometimes a crisis happens despite your best efforts to prevent them. Bad news is inevitable.
But once you’re stuck with some bad news, knowing how to handle it is critical. Experienced public relations practitioners often say that good news writes itself, but its how you handle bad news that really matters.
A new study released this month provides more evidence about how best to handle bad news.
Claeys, Cauberghe & Pandelaere (2016) decided to test the stealing thunder technique. They showed one group of people a newspaper page with a story where an organisation had disclosed some negative news. They then showed that group and control group a newspaper page that included a very negative news report quoting a third party.
Using eye tracking technology the authors then analysed how long each group spent reading the negative news story. Those that only saw the second, more negative story read it for an average of 22 seconds. Those that had read the self-disclosure story first only spent an average of eight seconds reading it.
In a separate study the authors then repeated a similar methodology however this time they measured whether an audience’s involvement in an issue would affect the moderating effect of self-disclosure. Interestingly, they found that people who were highly involved in an issue spent an average of 25 seconds reading a negative story, however if they were exposed to a self disclosure previously, they would only read that negative story for an average of 13 seconds.
The authors conclude that if you read a more neutral story first it reduces the interest in reading a negative ones later on. This suggests that those that fess up suffer much less reputational damage than those that don’t.
Public relations practitioners often have difficulty convicning people to get onto the front foot.
This study shows why that’s usually the best strategy when its your turn to handle bad news.
- Arpan, L. & Roskos-Ewoldsen, D., 2005. Stealing thunder: Analysis of the effects of proactive disclosure of crisis information. Public Relations Review, Volume 31, pp. 425-433.
- Arpan, L. & Pompper, D., 2003. Stormy weather: testing “stealing thunder” as a crisis communication strategy to improve communication flow between organizations and journalists. Public Relations Review, Volume 29, p. 291-308.
- Claeys, A.-S., Cauberghe, V. & Pandelaere, M., 2016. Is old news no news? The impact of self disclosure by organisations in crisis. Journal of Business Research, Volume 69, pp. 3963-3970.
- Coombs, W. & Holladay, S., 2002. Helping Crisis Managers Protect Reputational Assets: Initial Tests of the Situational Crisis Communication Theory. Management Communication Quarterly, 16(2), pp. 165-186.