The gentle art of communicating bad news

Every organization faces the need to communicate bad news. This might be a poor financial result, product withdrawal, cyber security breach, or a restructure resulting in redundancies.

While there is always a temptation to either cover up and move on,

delivering bad news bluntly, or insensitively can be even more damaging to reputation.

Last month P&O Ferries in the UK provided a textbook example of poorly communicating bad news, when it elected to sack 800 workers (effective immediately) in a three minute pre-recorded Zoom email delivered by the CEO.

There was undoubtedly some rationale for such an extreme action, but as P&O is discovering, it is easy to underestimate the backlash such an approach can create.

P&O has faced criticism across the political divide in the UK Parliament with calls for it to lose its cross channel service route license and a consumer boycott of all P&O services is gaining momentum.

In the face of it all, P&O Ferries CEO is unrepentant, claiming that only such extreme action could save the company after the disaster of being shut down during the Covid pandemic. This message was drowned out by the noise created following its abrupt communication to workers, but may not have had to be the case.

In many circumstances it is possible to deliver bad news in a way that minimizes fallout.

Lead up to the announcement

Where regulations allow it, let it be known what is being considered. The old press secretary adage of ‘no surprises’ can definitely work when it comes to bad news.

Deliver news in person and allow the opportunity for recipients to vent

Having the courage to face the music, rather than hiding behind a statement or a one way video, can help mitigate anger. You will need to be prepared and able to respond to difficult questions.

Be ready to front the media immediately

A vacuum of information will be filled by extreme voices, so you need to be ready to influence the agenda. If necessary a mea culpa and an explanation can grab the agenda and help the story move on.

Nobody likes giving bad news, but it is better to rip off the band-aid than to let it fester. What has worked for you in delivering bad news?

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