September 16, 2016

News 101

Pipe bands often have a tough time handling sensitive information, such as the dismissal or departure of leaders. These days, moves like these are rarely amicable and smooth, and often sink into a quagmire of he-said-she-said confusion.

As a publication working to report piping and drumming news fairly, when a band issues an “official” statement, then that is generally proof that the news is legit, at least according to them. It’s like a company issuing a news release. It comes from the company, the company endorses it, the facts are stated by the company.

A pipe band is a kind of company There are leaders, there’s often a management team of players and non-players, and the rest of the players make up a team of workers. Yes, a pipe band, with few exceptions, is a musical group of volunteers, but the tenets of a company are almost exactly the same.

Pipe bands and companies create additional problems for themselves when they withhold facts. Obviously, not every sordid detail needs to be divulged, but all of the essential facts should be told, whether or not they are pleasant.

As Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” These are words to live by.

Pipe bands in their canny desire to get in front of the news will often try to put out the story that they hope will be told. They tend to conveniently omit details, crossing their nine useful fingers that the whole story won’t get out.

Newsflash: it always gets out. You can either be up-front and tell it, or you can leave it to others to tell it or, much worse, speculate and jump to negative conclusions.

My profession is public relations and communications. I have handled sensitive communications matters for all types and sizes of companies over my 24-year career. Cardinal rule: do not try to hide or obfuscate the negative or uncomfortable essential aspects of a news story. Tell it, tell it again, tell it another time. Answer all questions.

Why? Because it only gets worse when the untold negative news is eventually told. You appear as if you were trying to hide something, primarily because that’s exactly what you were doing. As difficult as it might be to relay the negative sides of a story, being seen to try to hide it is far, far worse than being up-front, frank and honest.

Hillary Clinton having pneumonia is not nearly as bad as Hillary Clinton being seen to hide for two days the fact that she has pneumonia.

A one-time piece of bad news lasts a day. Damage to your reputation can last forever.

Being on the other side, as a journalist trying to report the news, the PR blunders by bands and associations make me cringe. My instinct is to try to help bands through the crisis, but that would be unethical. In a moment when I couldn’t bear to watch any more of their PR bumbling some years ago, I offered free counsel to the RSPBA to help them turn around their frequently foundering ship and set a better reputational course, but the offer went unanswered. They’re a bit better now, but they continue to make easily avoidable mistakes.

Many pipe bands and a few associations are learning to work with a professional-standard media. Missteps have happened and will continue to happen. The days when pipe bands and associations could sweep negative news under the rug and safely assume no one would bother to look there are well and truly over, yet some bands and associations live in the past.

Here’s some unsolicited advice:

  1. Get out in front of the story.
  2. If your band is at an impasse, for example, with a long-time leader who rejects the decision of relatively new leadership, then say so.
  3. Rather than pretending it’s a done deal and inferring that someone left amicably, clearly state that you are still trying to work through the matter, and hope to resolve any misunderstanding.
  4. If the news is contentious, say so, and explain your side clearly, and perhaps be empathetic to the long-time leader you’re trying to remove.
  5. Say WHY things happened. Explain your reasoning. Not doing that only invites speculation. That is not good for anyone.
  6. People naturally suspect the worst. So, if there was a change due to “musical differences,” or “the two leaders just could not get along,” or “we felt that a change now would help the band in the long-term,” then say it. Rational people understand rational reasons.
  7. Be prepared to answer questions quickly.
  8. Don’t expect the media to report only when it’s convenient for you.
  9. Provided the media is credible and willing to work to report all sides of the story fairly (and not in the back pocket of, say, an association or a business), don’t try to hide, be up-front and work with them.
  10. Keep people apprised of progress and further developments.

PR 101: get in front of the story and, when in doubt, tell the truth.

Hope that helps.




  1. What common sense, I thought it very strange that a band as high profile as Shotts could so mishandle the Jim Kilpatrick affair. For Greater Glasgow Police to repeat the error a year later is incredible and implies that they failed to observe and learn the lessons from Shotts mistake!

  2. For news releases, they should be short, objective, concise, and boring. Such a news release would be something left to the BoD to handle, and if high profile any response should be reviewed by counsel. Often. these issues require finesse and diplomacy. Long narratives outlining negative news can come back as evidence presented by the other side or escalation of the dispute. Moreover, disparagement and defamation are not that difficult to which one can become entangled. As one seasoned attorney imparted to me: “if you are explaining then you are losing”.

    1. That used to be the case, and there are still communications people and departments who are guided by their legal team, whose rule of thumb is generally to say as little as possible for fear of incrimination. A far more effective tack today is to answer all essential questions before they are asked. And you know that they will be asked. Statements do not need to be long, just effective. As much as legal people like to wish that beat reporters who file a story every day at 5 pm for the print publication are still around, they no longer exist. You can answer essential questions before they are asked, or you can watch interested people speculate and jump to generally negative conclusions on the net.

  3. I think in both cases it was the PM and perhaps another person involved within the organization believing they have unilateral power to sack or change out whatever personnel they please. This is likely a point that needs clearing up in general. I have no doubt when both bands contacted P | D they thought the termination of services was concluded (it was in their minds). We’ve changed lead tips before, it was never a “vote” we got a communication advising us the change had been made similar to what you got here. Is it really right for a lead drummer to show up to a vote or await a vote deciding their fate. How do the parties move past such a situation and work together again should the vote go against the PM’s initiative?

    Does the PM have all power to do as they please in the pipeband world?
    Don’t know, but clearly this may be thought to be an unwritten rule. One thing is for sure in the corporate world both Eric Ward and Jim Kilpatrick would be entitled to one heck of a severance package. Maybe we need to begin having terms of service and band policies surrounding personnel change put in writing to avoid these types of situations.



Forgotten Password?