Putting a positive spin on a negative story

That reminds me … bridging tough questions can soften criticism


Do you know how to pivot or bridge a difficult or unflattering question from a reporter into an answer that puts your agency in a more positive light?

The NFL’s New York Jets recently gave their players a laminated card with phrases they could use to spin their answers. New York Daily News reporter Manish Mehta took photos of one of the cards and tweeted it out.

Granted, it’s the Jets. Since word of the card got out, the organization has been mocked mercilessly. But that doesn’t mean the idea of helping players bridge tough questions into positive answers is wrong.   

The NFL’s New York Jets recently gave their players a laminated card with phrases they could use to spin their answers.
The NFL’s New York Jets recently gave their players a laminated card with phrases they could use to spin their answers.

Here are some of the “bridge” suggestions of how to transition from a difficult question to a more positive message:

  • Let me just add that …
  • That reminds me …
  • Let me answer you by saying …
  • Another thing to remember is …
  • If you look at it closely you’ll find …
  • The real issue here is …
  • That’s not my area of expertise, but I think your audience would be interested to know that …

Spin to the bright side

Putting a positive spin on an embarrassing or negative story is part of the job as a spokesman, but it doesn’t stop there. The reality is that every employee is a spokesman or public ambassador of the company. The key is knowing what you want to say before the reporter even asks the question. 

Here’s an example: An ambulance gets in a crash and media start asking questions. An immediate response might be: 

We’re investigating the cause of today’s crash involving one of our ambulances, but it’s important to remember that our agency has 43 vehicles and our crews drive more than 700,000 miles a year responding to medical emergencies and transporting patients. Our talented EMTs that drive our ambulances complete more than 100 hours of emergency vehicle driver training before we give them driving status. Once the investigation is complete, we’ll review the findings to ensure we’re doing everything possible to protect and care for our patients and the public. 

In this simple deflection, I provided lots of new facts and figures that could be included that pivot time spent on negative aspects of a story into a story explaining how the company has an extensive driver training program and, based on the number of vehicles and miles driven, there are actually very few crashes involving ambulances. 

If all I did was say the company was investigating, or acknowledge that the company driver caused the crash, the only thing the reporter can say is negative because they have nothing else to consider reporting or sharing within their story.  

Put out kitchen fire before it becomes a house fire

Sharing a silver lining in a negative story is completely appropriate, but let me be clear. A spokesman should never lie to a reporter. Get caught in a lie, and you’ll never be trusted again. If your company or an individual employee makes a mistake, acknowledge it. 

Think of it this way. As first responders, we run into the fire, not away from it. Your strategy should be the same for negative stories. Put out the kitchen fire before it becomes a house fire. 

I used to joke that when I served as the PIO for an ambulance company, I never knew I was signing up to be a firefighter, because I’d spend most of my day putting out fires. The faster you acknowledge and respond to a story that may be negative, the better. In acknowledging the mistake, explain what changes you’re making to help make sure similar mistakes don’t occur again in the future. 

Pivot to the positive

Pivoting to a positive response increases the options for the reporter to write a positive, or at least less negative, story. More company spokespeople should memorize and carry a card like the Jets. 

Looking for practical ways to practice?  Have a friend or coworker give you an obscure company fact or even a completely unrelated physical item — like aluminum siding. Then, have the person ask you a question. The question doesn’t even need to be serious. It can even be “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Your task is to logically and conversationally transition the question of why the chicken crossed the road to an answer about aluminum siding.

Initially, it’s going to be difficult to make the transition feel natural and less obvious. But after a little practice using a bridge statement, it’ll become easy. You just need to have the right players in position, practice and execute the game plan.  Just like the Jets.

P.S:  For the record, no, I’m not a Jets fan.  Go Cleveland Browns (hometown)! Go Arizona Cardinals (home for the past 13 years)!

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