Keeping Bad News From Getting Worse

By Scott Flood, Verbal Messaging and Public Relations, Brand Acceleration, Inc.

Most people and companies prefer to display positive attitudes for the world to see. Unfortunately, situations arise when the messages we need to deliver aren’t happy ones. The way you share bad news can have a significant impact on your organization. One mishandled bit of bad news can undo a reputation you’ve spent years trying to earn.

That doesn’t have to happen. There are several steps you can take to share even terrible news in ways that can limit damage and even boost your standing among key audiences. Whether you need to announce a layoff, a price increase, lower-than-expected performance, or a security breach, these steps can keep bad news from getting significantly worse.

Speak candidly. What do many people do when faced with unpleasant news? They try to camouflage it with weasel words or clever expressions, believing their audiences will be easily fooled. They fail to realize people see right through that stuff. They don’t think you’re trying to soft-pedal your message; they assume you’re lying through your teeth.

How do you react when a political figure gets caught doing something he shouldn’t, and then tries to slither his way out of it with doubletalk? Would your reaction differ if he instead said, “I made a mistake. What I did was wrong, and I regret it.” Being straightforward builds trust and pays long-term dividends, even when you’re sharing bad news. (Plus, it’s easier to keep track of what you’ve said when you tell the truth.)

Another advantage of candor is that it can even disarm your critics, especially when you follow it with a statement about what action you’ll take next or what you’ll do differently. After that, anyone who criticizes you appears to be mean-spirited.

Display confidence. Even if you’re shaking inside, reacting with poise and self-assurance conveys the impression that you’re in control and that you’re already moving past the bad news. If your employees or customers see you as confident, they’ll feel that way, too.

Focus on outsiders’ concerns. Although you know the full story about the bad news, external audiences don’t care how it looks to you. They want to know about what matters to them, so concentrate on their viewpoint. “The fire was a setback, but we have already leased temporary office space and are working from our backups to ensure that customers won’t see any interruption in the service we provide.”

Don’t magnify it. Whatever has happened or is about to happen isn’t as bad as the Covid Pandemic, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or the end of the world, so don’t behave like it is. The audience’s reaction relies heavily on your explanation. Present the news as something bigger than it really is, and they’ll overreact.

Make sure your employees provide measured responses when sharing information, too. If they’re delivering drama or sound panicky when talking with customers, you’ll have a tougher time turning things around.

Accept the blame. It’s so easy to shift the blame to someone else or a situation. “Our production staff didn’t live up to management’s expectations.” “The economy caused this layoff.” But even if you’re really not at fault, demonstrate leadership. After all, the people in charge rarely hesitate to take credit for the good things that happen to their organizations, so they should also take credit for the bad ones. “I didn’t pay close enough attention to our production process, and quality suffered.” “We just didn’t respond quickly enough to the challenges created by the recession.”

Find some good news. Learn from that nugget of Zen wisdom: “Now that my house burned down, I have a better view of the moon.” It may not be easy to find positives in your bad news, but if you take a fresh perspective, you’re bound to identify some. That’s where to place your emphasis. “Yes, this happened, but it will help us improve our service going forward.”

Speak and move on. Businesses tend to be so overwhelmed by bad news that they keep repeating it to customers. Others leave messages announcing the bad news on signs in their workplaces or in announcements on their websites long after the news is old.

People have short memories, and if you stop reminding them about your bad news, they’ll shift their focus to other things. Once you’ve shared the bad news, go back to delivering the kind of messages everyone enjoys.