At some point in a public relations career, you will have to be the bearer of unpleasant news, or the person who helps craft its communication. But there are strategies for delivering such news properly, tempering the blow and assuring that no one shoots the messenger.
First, you have to take a good look at where the news falls on a scale of one to 10, with one being minor and 10 being catastrophic. Let’s look at some scenarios and our recommendations for the best outcomes.
You’re unprepared and have to scramble
Late last year, Toblerone Chocolates pulled a fast one on its legions of fans around the world by changing the iconic look of the bar. Apparently it needed to reduce the weight of the bar, but instead of simply shrinking it imperceptibly, it created large gaps between the sections. The change was met with outrage, both on social media and at the cash register. The brand compounded its mistake by staying mum about the changes until late in the game, letting its large UK fan base control the conversation, coming out in droves to diss the new bar. Worst of all, Poundland, the UK equivalent of the dollar store, is making its own version of Toblerone without the unsightly gaps.
What might the brand have done differently? Experts agree that when you’re breaking bad news, it’s best to get the news out quickly, with no sugarcoating. Audiences are more sophisticated (and can be) more forgiving than companies think. And though joking about serious matters is never recommended, Toblerone fans might have been sweet on a strategy that used a little humor to announce the changes.
There’s good news and bad news
Pandora recently reported an increase in advertising revenues and paid subscribers. In a letter to shareholders, the company credited its sales team for the improved performance, driven by a more aggressive strategy with ad load. But in the same missive, it announced a plan to improve operational efficiency that will include a workforce reduction of about 7% of its U.S.-based employees. The layoffs were expected by the end of the first quarter, and Pandora notified affected employees at the same time as the public. The company will incur $5 million to $7 million in severance costs. The announcement led with the positive news (important for customers and shareholders) but didn’t shy away or conceal the negative. Pandora CEO Tim Westergren was quoted as saying “While making workforce reductions is always a difficult decision, the commitment to cost discipline will allow us to invest more heavily in product development and monetization and build on the foundations of our strategic investments.” Not overly saccharine, and most importantly, not keeping affected employees in the dark.
The bad news is a total reversal of a previous announcement
Remember the gleeful announcement the pre-inauguration Trump administration made heralding the deal that would keep some 600 Carrier plant jobs in the U.S.? Well, it seems some seven months later, Carrier employees are bracing for layoffs rather than exulting in the “number [of saved jobs] going to go up very substantially” as Trump had touted. The problem with overpromising and underdelivering, as any PR person knows, is that falling short of one’s own hype is a particularly harsh and self-inflicted blow. The lack of preparation by the administration or Carrier means that the news is unexpected and those affected are understandably going to view it with disdain. As one commented, “To me this was just political, to make it a victory within Trump’s campaign, in his eyes that he did something great.”
The bad news affects stakeholders differently
The departure of a successful CEO might be met with shock or sadness. Or not. In the case of this past week’s resignation by Uber founder Travis Kalanick, there has been more of a “Ding dong, the witch is dead” reaction than an outburst of sadness, particularly among the press and women’s groups. Kalanick has been a fairly equal opportunity villain for the past few years; stories abound of misogynistic behavior, employee mistreatment, and outright illegal company moves. So when the Uber board announced that Kalanick would step down, it could have rationalized the move with a statement citing the founder’s mistakes. Instead it praised him in a much more conciliatory manner, saying, “Sometimes great leadership means empowering others to lead the task at hand, and that is what he has done here to help important and necessary changes at the company happen so Uber can reach its full potential.”
While many on social media reacted swiftly with positive posts, many Uber employees are actually clamoring for Kalanick’s return, which makes you wonder if cultural problems are institutionalized there, or if Kalanick is simply a polarizing figure.
Most importantly, when the news will hurt people, lead with empathy. As psychologists point out, negative news is more “cognitively engaging” than good tidings, which PR people know from years of “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism. So, while speed and honesty are important in getting ahead of bad news, it’s best to take the time to convey genuine feelings for those affected.