Stealing The News Media Thunder
Adapted from the new book, Strategic Crisis Communication, by James S. O’Rourke, IV and Jeffrey A. Smith, with a Foreword by Richard Edelman, published in June 2023 by Routledge, Abingdon, Oxford, a Taylor & Francis Group imprint. © James S. O’Rourke, IV and Jeffrey A. Smith.
When a crisis first emerges within an organization, for example when a product defect is identified internally, or an executive exhibits bad behavior, or environmental damage occurs such as a spill or chemical release, the organization faces an important choice. Should it say and do nothing publicly and hope it blows over, or should it proactively disclose the issue to the news media? Often, organizations are hesitant to take the proactive approach for fear of provoking negative media coverage and unwanted attention from stakeholders that could have been avoided had the issue never been made public. Why disclose a problem if there is an even chance no one will ever know about it? 1
But what if someone does find out? The BP oil spill in 2010 was not revealed by the company until it had become a full-blown disaster. Volkswagen leadership was alerted to its emissions cheating a year before it was uncovered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Resources Board. In both cases, the companies faced huge and long-lasting waves of negative publicity and public and governmental outrage, not only because of the environmental impact of their actions, but also for failing to come forward in a timely manner with the truth. 2
A communicator’s task of convincing the C-suite to take a proactive and transparent approach to disclosing a major problem before the media or someone else discovers it may be a very challenging conversation. But it is one that must be had, and important research backs up the argument for self-disclosure. One might start the C-suite discussion with the number one Page Principle, rooted in ethical behavior, to “Tell the Truth.” 3 The option of self-disclosing a crisis is also supported by many more reasons beyond a basic ethical imperative to do the right thing.
The theory behind self-disclosure involves the concept of “stealing thunder.” In other words, an organization preemptively discloses major problems or crises before the news media become aware of them. Stealing thunder means breaking the news before the media have a chance to do so. It means taking away (stealing) the media’s element of surprise (thunder) by intercepting and somewhat neutralizing the provocative “gotcha,” appeal of a breaking investigative story.
This approach has several advantages. Important and compelling research on the stealing thunder concept reveals four strong reasons for an organization to self-disclose before a crisis unfolds.
• First, the research shows that organizational spokespersons who steal thunder and self-disclose are found to have more credibility than those who do not. 4 Big advantage, because transparency will be perceived and interpreted as honesty.
• Second, if a company self-discloses bad news, the resultant crises can appear less serious or severe. 5 If the crisis appears to be no big deal because the organization was forthcoming about it, it is less interesting.
• Third, organizations that steal thunder from the media by revealing negative and potentially damaging news may appear more trustworthy and consumers are more liable to continue buying their products. 6 In this respect, openness is a virtue and customers will be more forgiving because of it.
• Fourth, one recent study finds that consumers of news will sense that the bad publicity generated about an organization that stole thunder is actually “old news,” and will be more likely to disregard it. 7 If the organization was transparent enough to offer up the information, maybe it’s not so bad, and it’s already been covered by the media, so why do I need to care about it?
Any degree of message control whatsoever in a crisis is difficult enough to achieve. Both legacy media and social media are more complex and multi-faceted than they once were, and the opportunities for information to be leaked or divulged in an uncontrolled manner, against an organization’s wishes, are unlimited. Stealing the thunder from all this potential noise is a tactic that may mute likely antagonists both from within the organization and without, by beating them to the starting line. An organization that gets the news out first, even if it is unpleasant news, is in a much stronger position than one offering a back-footed reaction to an unexpected headline in a Wall Street Journal exposé.
Concealing a major crisis in the hopes that no one will notice it may be a tempting option. Don’t do it. Solid research backs up the notion that such a choice is both risky and ill-advised. The BP and Volkswagen cases are clear proof that hiding a bad situation only makes matters worse once the truth comes to light. Stealing thunder can reduce the amount of attention paid by the public and limit damage to the organization’s bottom line, reputation, and image. 8 Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger captured the essence of stealing thunder when he said, “Any fact that needs to be disclosed should be put out now or as quickly as possible, because otherwise the bleeding will not end.”