InTouch : Comment On Breaking Bad News

As economic pessimism bites, the odds are that business managers will be faced with the task of breaking bad news, such as price rises to customers, and job cuts to staff.
Bad news is bad news no matter how you spin it. It changes people’s futures. This is one part of life that is not much fun, and you cannot make it better with words.
Good techniques for telling bad news are those which minimise unreasonable responses and improve chances of maintenance or recovery of your organisation’s relationship with the affected people.
The central premise is that bad news should be delivered clearly and unequivocally, but with empathy.
The problem is, social sensitivities and decade of business success have screwed with our ability to tell bad news. During the good times we had the luxury of going along with the paranoia over upsetting anyone. To do that, businesses often used ambiguity. For example, companies did not lay off workers – they made “workforce adjustments”, “headcount reductions”, or offered workers “vocational relocation”.
This approach backfires. I have seen staff leaving redundancy gathering saying they did not know what the meeting was about. I have witnessed customers ringing call centre thinking letter informing them of price rise had actually told them that their service package had improved.
The result is not only that the audience does not understand the message, but when they finally do, they’re really angry.
As reminder then for any hard times to come, here are some tips for communicating bad news.

You do it
Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. But the truly able leader succeeds when they step up in times of adversity, not the easy times. If the CEO or senior people do not front up, your audiences are more likely to think the company does not care, is at fault, or will not attempt to improve things.

Just the facts
The primary rule of delivering bad news is to tell it like it is. Make sure the facts are clear and obvious. The bad news should be made up of facts prioritised according to realistic appraisal of relevance to the audience. Consider what matters to your audience. For example, the first concern of your staff is not that your business costs are under pressure, but that they might be sacked! This is harder than it looks. Communication gets muddled by our capacity to understand what it is like for others, and our desire to be understood. We try to soften the blow, and to explain it from our point of view.

Give early clues
The general principle is that the earlier you tell people something the more likely they are to accept and accommodate the next piece of news. There are always early signs. Maybe your suppliers are not raising their prices yet, but you have gut instinct that they are going to. That is the time to start giving customers few subtle clues that your prices are under pressure.

Connect news with existing facts
People make sense of new information by relating it to something else they already ‘know’. So find way of explaining the situation by relating it to things already believed by your audience. For example, at the moment people are already disposed to blame rises in prices on things like petrol costs, the ‘credit crunch’ or the general ‘economic downturn’. The benefit of this approach is it also helps you avoid responsibility when things really are not your fault. For example, in the face of rising petrol prices, transport firm has added fluctuating petrol component on top of its bills. This action clearly says “this cost is not our fault”.

Get personal
Your audiences assume that when people are at fault or cannot be trusted, they hide. In Western society it’s like someone not looking you in the eyes. It is also lot easier to demonise and blame someone with whom you have little connection, or who shows little emotion about the bad news. So make your communications personal, and as ‘personable’ as possible.
Verbal explanations should be used whenever possible, because they usually force the use of ordinary language and emotions; such as phone calls to key customers and influencers in the customer network; 0800 numbers with personal messages from you; executive staff assigned to answering escalated calls; and websites with video explanations.
Letters should be written from the senior manager – someone who will pick up the phone when called. They should be written in personal style to signal sympathy and caring. You should communicate often. One letter to the customer explaining the situation may have taken you an age to get right, and you’re dealing with the issue every single moment of the work day. But for all that effort, and all that hurt, should the customer just get one measly letter from you?
Finally, if you use the media, make it personal as well – give as much of your time and presence as possible. This personal touch will hopefully be conveyed in the tone of the media coverage.
In summary, when telling bad news, first deliver the facts that are directly relevant to the recipient with simple explanation, then describe what happens next, and then offer empathy.

Mark Blackham is partner with Senate Communication Counsel.

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