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10 September 2012

Bad news and how to deliver it


Raising your prices? Cutting services? Not giving out staff bonuses this year? No one wants to deliver unwelcome news — or receive it. But sometimes it’s a necessary evil of doing business, and you’re the unfortunate soul who has to bear the burden.

In PR Daily, Christina Miranda of New York-based Redpoint Marketing PR provides five tips to mitigate the drama. In blog feedback, PR professionals have commended Christina for her insights. WHAM has added their feedback to the story, along with its own [italics].

1. Let your own emotions run their course before you have to share the news with others. You may not like or agree with the news you must deliver, but there is a reason why it needs to be done. Come to terms with it so you don’t bring negative emotional energy to the communication. Your audience will take its cue from your approach, and if you’re defensive, nervous, weepy, or angry, it will only fuel their negative response.

This is true in cases of company restructuring, but not where lives have been lost. Delivering tragic news without any emotion could potentially ruin the reputation of the spokesperson and the organisation. Sometimes being seen as human is really a great thing ... making you "one of us" vs. "one of them". When Pike River mine manager Peter Whittall wore his heart on his sleeve immediately following the mine explosions, he attracted huge community support. In contrast, the unemotive bureaucratic language of the police spokesperson attracted widespread criticism.

That said, if you don't genuinely feel empathy, don't try to fake it. A flat delivery is better than than a less-than-convincing display of emotion.

2. Restrict your build-up and get to the point. By the time people get through six long paragraphs of posturing and pussyfooting in your email or press release, their B.S. radar is on high alert and involuntary butterflies in their stomach are flooding their brain with negative emotion. So, when you finally hit them with the unpleasant punch line, their adverse reaction is intensified by the emotions you nurtured in them. The same thing holds true for verbal delivery. Often, the anticipation is worse than the actual news.

3. Consider the timing carefully. Procrastinating often makes it worse (especially if there is a rumour mill in the mix), but rushing to break the news just because you want to put it behind you comes with great risk. A knee-jerk communication is usually delivered with clouded judgement, high emotion, and a lack of due diligence. Most importantly, consider when this news will best be received. Bad news is never welcome, but before you decide on the ideal time consider factors such as time, day, and your audience’s state of mind.

One mistake is to wait until you know everything and have the announcement crafted perfectly, because by then the rumour mill is a deafening roar and no one hears you. A delay may also make it look like your company doesn't even care, or doesn't see the issue as a priority. Better to tell what you know when you know it, promise to give more info when it's available, and follow up promptly. A timely, genuine but unpolished response is better than a belated "perfect" one.

4. Avoid misdirection and trickery. It’s tempting to load up bad news communication with a bunch of good news in the hopes of distracting your audience. However, it will only damage their trust in you. You may choose this path because it makes you feel better (“See? I’m not that bad — look at all the good things I’m still sharing.”) but to the news recipient, it just looks wishy-washy and weak. And in many cases, it can give the appearance of trivialising serious news and not treating it with the respect it deserves.

If there are mitigating details (a fat severance package, improved features, etc), plan to deliver them after the audience has had a few minutes, hours, or even days to digest the bad news. Good news delivered too early will only increase the sense of outrage, perceived as it will be as an attempt to downplay the severity of the bad news. Once the audience has had a chance to grieve their losses, they'll be ready to receive the good news with a modicum of joy or at least relief.

This technique is often employed by HR professionals when a company downsizes, if only to meet the consultative requirements of employment law. The big decision is announced, then the implications for individuals or classes of employee are dealt with directly with those involved and their advocates.

5. Remember that nothing is confidential. Emails can be forwarded, and social media is designed to be the world’s fastest grapevine. Whatever you do — whatever you say — before you “go there,” answer this question: How would I feel if 50 million people knew about this tomorrow? Nothing tames you into acting gracefully like the thought of being vilified by an outraged public. United Airlines (among other companies) learned this lesson the hard way.

Above all, you must remember that no matter how you spin it or when you say it, your audience won’t like it. That’s why it’s called “bad news.” It would be irrational for you to tell your customers you’re raising prices and have them respond “No worries, we don’t mind.” So, be realistic. If you expect to deliver bad news and have people walk away happy, this will not work out well for you.

And that brings us to the last point: Delivering bad news is not about you. The recipient does not want to hear about how you were up all night bellyaching over this conversation or that it gives you no pleasure to do this. Asking for their empathy at a time like this will likely result in their wanting to smack you. Let them have their moment of sadness without trying to steal some sympathy.

Christina Miranda is a principal at New York-based Redpoint Marketing PR and author of the marketing education blog http://redpointspeaks.com/


- Trevor Walton

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