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Is There A Good Way To Break Bad News?

pr.badnewsIt 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.

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