Crisis Management: Deliver Bad News Fast to the Right Audience: Crisis communications
Remember the scene in The Godfather when mob lawyer Tom Hagen tries to persuade movie mogul Jack Woltz to put Don Corleone’s godson in an upcoming war film in exchange for Corleone’s “undying friendship?” Woltz screams he will not be intimidated and orders Hagen to “get the hell out of here.” Hagen calmly says, “Thank you for the dinner and a very pleasant evening. Maybe your car could take me to the airport. Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.” Retribution in the form of the decapitated head of his prize racehorse Khartoum awakens Woltz in bed the next morning. He capitulates.
Each of us usually wants to hear unpleasant news immediately. We especially expect it from those we trust. Anything less is worrisome. If we are aware of trouble afoot, impending dread and uncertainty are almost worse than the truth. I know that you, dear reader, have been stung by negative information learned via the grapevine rather than appropriate channels. Whether executive, employee, or citizen, if bad news concerns you, you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth – no pun intended. When you don’t get it you feel devalued, perhaps manipulated, even deceived.
Yet, astonishingly, new clients occasionally reveal that they have been sitting on PR bombshells for weeks and even months. While they know that a premature leak will cost credibility, they can’t seem to push through and deliver the bad news. It is like holding a live hand grenade with the pin pulled. I wonder how they escaped exposure for so long, and why they risked their reputations. Troublesome information always seems to surface at the worst possible time. Sometimes they have suffered and are not aware of it. Misinformation quietly consumes credibility that is hard to restore. Thankfully that is rare.
There are at least two overriding reasons why delivering bad news fast can help you. 1) You get ahead of the rumor/innuendo mill, and 2) you control the context. This last point is paramount. Controlling the context of negative information can spell the difference between maintaining trust and losing it. You are perceived as being active rather than reactive. You can reveal problems and simultaneously explain how you will fix them. You will be in charge of the message.
So, since it is in your interest to convey bad news fast, here are three important steps to execute it well.
1. Prepare key messages and Q&A’s to put the bad news into context for all audiences. Since, by definition, your information is negative, it might hurt, threaten, or worry people. They will wonder, “Am I safe?” To the degree possible and truthful, your mission is to reassure them that you will strive to protect them. If you are laying off people, explain why cuts are necessary to protect the existence of the company and the jobs of others. Tell how you will assist those forced to leave to get on with their lives. If you are announcing a mistake, crisis, accident, embezzlement, or other problem, reassure your audiences of your a) concern, b) control of the situation, and c) intent to fix the difficulty and prevent a reoccurrence. The messages will vary slightly with your audience, but should be essentially the same. Also draft a list of worst-case questions and answer them. Do all of this as a team and not as a single individual. Collaboration produces the best communication. This is media training 101 but it works.
2. Notify critical audiences first. Internal stakeholders are almost always top priority – employees, customers, clients, board members, contributors, shareholders, etc. Tell them first because they rely upon you directly and should get bad news from you directly. If you have a duty to the public, then notify citizens through or in conjunction with the media. The art is in the timing. Sometimes, it is like a military campaign, telling internal audiences first, and then, hours, or even minutes later, alerting the public. A sequence that goes awry might unnecessarily anger a critical audience. Therefore……
3. Act fast! When delivering bad news, compress the notification gap and communicate as rapidly as possible. Prepare standby statements in the event of premature disclosure.
There is no foolproof way to deliver bad news. It is like training for war. Once the fighting starts, situations rarely go as anticipated. Nevertheless, by following the steps above and incorporating the assistance of PR experts, media training, and crisis planning, you can improve your odds of minimizing the fallout and moving toward better times.