Is There A Good Way To Break Bad News?

It can fall to PR specialists or other professional communicators to deliver information that will surely spark anger and resentment, not to mention negative media coverage and potential community impact. As an internal email explaining a planned workforce reduction by Microsoft recently showed, it’s not easy to deliver bad news.

In the Microsoft case, a longwinded memo begins with the casual salutation, “Hello, there,” and proceeds to outline business unit strategies and plans in painful detail. Five jargon-bloated paragraphs later, it mentions consolidation. It’s not until the ninth paragraph that it cuts to the chase – the elimination of roughly 12,500 positions.

Presumably, the internal note was not the only communication prepared for those affected, but the memo has been justly criticized as an example of how not to break such tidings.  But, is there any good way to deliver bad news?

The answer is no. But there are some techniques that can make the experience, and the impact, less awful. Here are a few of them.

Be direct. Whether the news is spoken or written, the direct approach is best. Obfuscation, excessive rationalization, or delaying tactics will only increase the anxiety among all parties. It’s best to rip off the band-aid first, then follow with a brief rationale where it’s relevant (and it usually is.)

Acknowledge the impact. The news typically isn’t about the one who delivers it, so focus on the impact to those affected. There will be anger, resentment, and possibly sorrow. These are expected reactions and should be respected.

But don’t overexplain. It’s moderately helpful to communicate the business reasons behind unwelcome changes like layoffs, but prolonged or detailed explanations can actually rub salt in the wound. Again, excessive focus on the bearer of the news isn’t really constructive when someone is grappling with a punch to the gut.

Don’t try to PR it. This is not the occasion for the silver lining. Even if you’re convinced that everything will turn out for the best, and that the change could even be a hidden blessing, resist the temptation to go there.

Offer a second meeting or communication with mitigating news or options. Depending on the degree of mitigation that the company can offer, many experts advise waiting to deliver news about possible updates, such as opportunities to apply for other positions at the company. This is because the negative news will overwhelm any positive nuggets and they are likely to be wasted.

Expect all news to become public. Anything that is spoken will be repeated (and possibly distorted), so the news should be confirmed in writing. But know that anything in writing will be shared or leaked to those outside the company, including the press. So the communications should be very carefully crafted and should not contain any information that is confidential or sensitive.

Focus on company goals.  The sad fact of business is that the health of the enterprise must always trump the fate of individuals. In any public communications, company management should remind stakeholders that the decision was made with long-term corporate goals in mind. This is unlikely to make the news any easier for those who are negatively affected, but it’s relevant to other audiences.

Be professional. Spend the necessary time to have a proper conversation, if the communication is in person. Acknowledge your own feelings of regret, but keep things professional at all costs.  Even if your news is met with tears, anger, recrimination, or insults, remind yourself that none of it is personal, and behave accordingly.

Secrets of a Successful CSR Campaign

It’s no surprise that public trust in corporations, along with government and faith institutions, seems to be at an all-time low. According to the Reputation Institute’s 2012 Corporate Social Responsibility RepTrak 100 Study, only 17% of respondents trust what companies promise in their marketing. What’s more, a mere 6% perceive the top 100 companies as good corporate citizens. That’s one reason why so many major companies make reputation management and Corporate Social Responsibility a priority.

Microsoft has the best reputation for CSR in the world, according to the study, followed by Google, The Walt Disney Co., BMW, Apple, Daimler, VW, SONY, LEGO and Colgate-Palmolive. But what about a more typical company? How do corporations who do not happen to be globally recognized brands make CSR work for them?

Look for a strategic fit. The best CSR campaigns are intuitive to the companies or groups who underwrite them. Often a corporate CEO or other executive has a personal or pet project and somehow it snowballs into a CSR commitment. But it’s far better to analyze your corporate values and focus in on a strategic bullseye. Tide sending a mobile fleet of washers and dryers to disaster-hit areas makes perfect sense. KFC supporting the Komen Foundation? Maybe not.

Get buy-in at the top. A successful CSR program usually needs more strategic heft than an executive hobby or pet project, but it stands a far greater chance of surviving if the C-suite champions it. Buy-in should start there, and be vigorously reinforced. Look at Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, who personally gets behind its corporate social programs.

Make it horizontal. Any corporate social responsibility campaign will be longer lived and more powerful if it transcends corporate communications. Take a cue from Microsoft, which describes its CSR commitment as a horizontal function, not a series of vertical tasks. In fact, Microsoft’s Dan Bross explains that it has the added benefits of breaking down silos.

Start small. A new CSR campaign can die from ambition. It’s far better to start with a manageable program, say, in a local market, or even a pilot effort, before rolling out a larger campaign.

Take the long view. Many companies, by design or due to corporate executive changes, alter their programming in a CSR flavor-of-the-month strategy. That’s a mistake. It typically takes years for a social commitment to fully penetrate key constituencies and become linked with your brand. Let it happen naturally and organically, but with some help from good PR practices.

The Final (Gaming) Frontier?

There’s some cool news from E3, the largest annual trade exhibition for gaming enthusiasts. The videogame industry typically shows resiliency in economic downturns, but sales began to slump this spring as the recession took hold, and free or low-cost Web-only and mobile games started to nibble at the traditional videogame business.

Today Microsoft electrified the show by announcing the oddly-named “Project Natal” a new gaming system that lets you really get in the game like never before. Natal combines a camera, depth sensor, microphone, and processor so that it can track body movement, recognize faces, scan images of real items, and respond to vocal and physical commands.  In other words, to play soccer, you kick the ball or slam it with your body, removing, in the words of Forrester analyst Paul Jackson, “that final barrier between you sitting in your room and…what’s on your screen.”

“That final barrier…” I could practically hear the old “Star Trek” TV theme song and the melodramatic Captain Kirk voice-over about the “final frontier.”  And, uber-visionary and filmmaker Steven Spielberg, along with Xbox honcho Don Mattrick,  added verbal flourishes to the demo, waxing eloquent about breaking down barriers – “between generations, between games and entertainment, and between videogamers and everyone else.”

That’s a lofty promise, and there’s no word yet on Natal’s price, or a timetable for its availability.  If it’s not out of the ballpark, however, Natal could give casual gaming the kind of shot in the arm that the Nintendo’s Wii did for the past several years.  Is it a Wii-killer? Who knows, but the game is most definitely on.

Does Bing Hit The Mark?

Yesterday at the D: All Things Digital Conference, Microsoft announced that it will launch Bing, a rebuilt search engine that it hopes will help consumers make better decisions, redefine the category, and maybe even give Google a run for its money. Bing is really a rebranding of Microsoft Live Search, with some nifty new features thrown in. It’s gotten some pretty positive early reviews, and it’s expected that Microsoft will support it heavily.  Ad and media types are practically frothing over the rumored budget of $80-100 million for print, online, TV, and outdoor advertising to build the Bing brand.

But, what’s funny is that the Bing brand has gotten nearly as much ink as the fact of the launch. The choice of name has been harshly criticized by some tech wags and marketing types as evoking the strip club frequented by Tony Soprano, or the nerdy Chandler Bing on NBC’s long-running “Friends.” The widely read TechCrunch insists that another name under consideration, “Sift,” would have been preferable. (Are they kidding?)  Others joke that it’s an acronym for “Big Investment, No Goals,” or even “But It’s Not Google.”  According to the Urban Dictionary, it’s slang for “jail,” and it might mean “disease” in Chinese. Still not sure about that one.

Most entertaining, though, is “Bing vs. Bing.”  Pseudonymous Fortune writer Stanley Bing (a/k/a the hilarious Gil Schwartz) issued a mock press release detailing his “moderate outrage” at the hijacking of “his” brand by the software giant.  Stanley Bing cheerfully claims he’s “open to any reasonable offer” for his services, “or simply to provide no services” and that he looks forward to being “massively well-optimized” by the other, newer, Bing. 

For what it’s worth, I think “Bing” has a fun sound, and I did instantly take away the “bingo-we have a winner!” connotation that Steve Ballmer hopes will come to be “the sound of found.”  Plus, it’s a heck of a lot better than Kumo, the codename during its development phase. The mini-controversy over the branding might actually be a good thing for Microsoft, given its status as lightning rod for the technorati.  Since many feel obligated to be withering in their scrutiny, maybe the name will absorb some of the criticism, leaving the search engine itself to rise – or fall – on its own merits.