Breaking the Bad News: How to Best Deliver Tough Information
July 30, 2019
We receive bad news almost every day. It comes to us indirectly through the news and social media, or directly in emails, letters, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations. Bad news can be global or individual, life-changing or trivial. We receive the bad news of a security breach at a bank, for example, very differently depending on how closely we are affected. A cybersecurity breach that impacts individuals in another state won’t receive the same reaction as a breach that led to the loss of our hard-earned dollars. It doesn’t only matter what we find out, though; it also matters how we find out. In the case of fraud, for instance, customers will react more negatively if they receive the news from a breaking news story instead of directly from the bank.
As a business, it is practically guaranteed you’ll need to share difficult information at some point – perhaps a quarter with low profits, a reduction in services, an increase in pricing, a change in policy or even a leadership termination.
When bad news develops within your organization, it’s usually best that you, the leader, share the news. It’s always better to be the bearer of bad news yourself. If you don’t develop the surrounding narrative, someone else will – and you’ll lose control of what’s said about your business. Develop a narrative and create a plan for sharing it: emails, letters, or phone calls can all be acceptable methods of delivery, depending on the scale of your organization and severity of the news.
Below are four more components to consider as you craft your message:
- Start with the right structure
Briefly set the stage of why you are reaching out by providing essential background information. Then, in the first paragraph, if not within the first three sentences, share what happened. Immediately after, offer reassurance. This could be providing a solution if you are able, or may simply state that the situation is your top priority, you are devoting all the resources needed to the resolution and that you will remain in contact on a regular basis.
- Set the tone
You’ve worked incredibly hard to develop a successful organization and good reputation – so the crisis you’re in or the bad news you have to share may truly feel like the end of the world. You want to show your emotional connection and establish common ground… but be careful – going too far will backfire.
- Be accessible
Set up a dedicated email or phone number, because it’s inevitable that your audience will have questions. Even if you aren’t allowed to share much information due to regulatory restrictions, it’s essential to provide a venue for questions to lessen the number that appear on your social media channels, Google reviews or in the comments of a news article.
- Find the right length
There isn’t a specific word count or page length that applies across the board – but most printed, mailed letters should fit on one page. Strike the right balance of concise yet informative, and factor in the severity of your subject matter. State all the relevant information, offer reassurance at least once, and include contact information.
Last but not least, know when to call in support – a crisis communications team can review messaging, craft your response strategy or help you rebuild after the crisis. An outside, objective partner with an understanding of the audience and necessary next steps can lessen the long term impact.
Sara McCarthy is a problem solver by nature, with experience in communications, client relationship management, sponsorships, event planning and marketing. Her multi-faceted background helps her connect with clients across numerous industries to understand and address their needs.
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