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Chapter 17
Negative News and Crisis Communication
You don’t hear things that are bad about your company unless you ask. It is easy to hear good tidings,
but you have to scratch to get the bad news.
Thomas J. Watson Sr.
One day, today, is worth two tomorrows.
Anonymous
Getting Started
Communication is constant, but is it always effective? In times of confusion or crisis,
clear and concise communication takes on an increased level of importance. When an
emergency arises, rumors can spin out of control, emotions can run high, feelings can be
hurt, and in some cases lives can tragically be lost. In this chapter we will examine
several scenarios in which negative news is delivered or received, and examine ways to
improve communication. We will conclude with a discussion of a formal crisis
communication plan. Whether you anticipate the necessity of being the bearer of
unpleasant or bad news, or a sudden and unexpected crisis occurs, your thoughtful
preparation can make all the difference.
17.1 Delivering a Negative News Message
LEARNING OBJECTIVES
1. List and discuss seven goals of a negative news message.
2. Write an effective negative news message.
The negative news message delivers news that the audience does not want to hear, read,
or receive. Delivering negative news is never easy. Whether you are informing someone
they are being laid off or providing constructive criticism on their job performance, how
you choose to deliver the message can influence its response. [1] Some people prefer their
bad news to be direct and concise. Others may prefer a less direct approach. Regardless
whether you determine a direct or indirect approach is warranted, your job is to deliver
news that you anticipate will be unwelcome, unwanted, and possibly dismissed.
In this section we will examine several scenarios that can be communicated internally
(within the organization) and externally (outside the organization), but recognize that
the lines can be blurred as communication flows outside and through an organization or
business. Internal and external communication environments often have a degree of
overlap. The rumor of anticipated layoffs may surface in the local media, and you may
be called upon to address the concern within the organization. In a similar way, a
product that has failed internal quality control tests will require several more tests and
improvements before it is ready for market, but if that information leaves the
organization, it can hurt the business reputation, prospects for future contracts, and the
company’s ability to secure financing.
Communication is constantly present, and our ability to manage, clarify, and guide
understanding is key to addressing challenges while maintaining trust and integrity with
employees, stakeholders, and the public.
There are seven goals to keep in mind when delivering negative news, in person or in
written form:
1. Be clear and concise in order not to require additional clarification.
2. Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
3. Maintain trust and respect for the business or organization and for the receiver.
4. Avoid legal liability or erroneous admission of guilt or culpability.
5. Maintain the relationship, even if a formal association is being terminated.
6. Reduce the anxiety associated with the negative news to increase comprehension.
7. Achieve the designated business outcome.
Let’s examine our first scenario:
You are a supervisor and have been given the task of discussing repeated tardiness with
an employee, Chris. Chris has frequently been late for work, and the problem has grown
worse over the last two weeks. The tardiness is impairing not only Chris’s performance,
but also that of the entire work team. Your manager has instructed you to put an end to
it. The desired result is for Chris to stop his tardiness behavior and improve his
performance.
You can
1. stop by Chris’s cubicle and simply say, “Get to work on time or you are out”;
2. invite Chris out to a nice lunch and let him have it;
3. write Chris a stern e-mail;
4. ask Chris to come to your office and discuss the behavior with him in private.
While there are many other ways you could choose to address the situation, let’s
examine each of these four alternatives in light of the goals to keep in mind when
presenting negative news.
First, you could approach Chris in his workspace and speak to him directly. Advantages
include the ability to get right to the point right away. Disadvantages include the strain
on the supervisor-employee relationship as a result of the public display of criticism, the
possibility that Chris may not understand you, the lack of a formal discussion you can
document, and the risk that your actions may not bring about the desired results.
The goals include the desire to be clear and concise in order not to require additional
clarification. This possible response does not provide the opportunity for discussion,
feedback, or confirmation that Chris has clearly understood your concern. It fails to
address the performance concern, and limits the correction to the tardiness. It fails to
demonstrate respect for all parties. The lack of tact apparent in the approach may reflect
negatively on you as the supervisor, not only with Chris but with your manager as well.
When you need to speak to an employee about a personnel concern, it is always best to
do it in private. Give thought and concern to the conversation before it occurs, and make
a list of points to cover with specific information, including grievances. Like any other
speech, you may need to rehearse, particularly if this type of meeting is new to you.
When it comes time to have the discussion, issue the warning, back it up in writing with
documentation, and don’t give the impression that you might change your decision.
Whether the issue at hand is a simple caution about tardiness or a more serious
conversation, you need to be fair and respectful, even if the other person has been less
than professional. Let’s examine the next alternative.
Let’s say you invite Chris to lunch at a nice restaurant. There is linen on the table,
silverware is present for more than the main course, and the water glasses have stems.
The environment says “good job” in its uniqueness, presentation, and luxury. Your word
will contradict this nonverbal message. The juxtaposition between the environment and
the verbal message will cause tension and confusion, which will probably be an obstacle
to the receiver’s ability to listen. If Chris doesn’t understand the message, and the
message requires clarification, your approach has failed. The contrast between the
restaurant setting and the negative message does not promote understanding and
acceptance of the bad news or correction. Furthermore, it does not build trust in the
relationship, as the restaurant invitation might be interpreted as a “trap” or a betrayal.
Let’s examine yet another approach.
You’ve written Chris a stern e-mail. You’ve included a list of all the recent dates when he
was late and made several statements about the quality of his work. You’ve indicated he
needs to improve, and stop being late, or else. But was your e-mail harassment? Could it
be considered beyond the scope of supervision and interpreted as mean or cruel? And
do you even know if Chris has received it? If there was no reply, do you know whether it
achieved its desired business outcome? A written message may certainly be part of the
desired approach, but how it is presented and delivered is as important as what it says.
Let’s examine our fourth approach to this scenario.
You ask Chris to join you in a private conversation. You start the conversation with an
expression of concern and an open-ended question: “Chris, I’ve been concerned about
your work lately. Is everything all right?” As Chris answers, you may demonstrate that
you are listening by nodding your head, and possibly taking notes. You may learn that
Chris has been having problems sleeping, or that his living situation has changed. Or
Chris may decline to share any issues, deny that anything is wrong, and ask why you are
concerned. You may then state that you’ve observed the chronic tardiness, and name
one or more specific mistakes you have found in Chris’s work, ending with a reiteration
that you are concerned. This statement of concern may elicit more responses and open
the conversation up into a dialogue where you come to understand the situation, Chris
sees your concern, and the relationship is preserved. Alternatively, in case the
conversation does not go well, you will still keep a positive attitude even as you
document the meeting and give Chris a verbal warning.
Regardless of how well or poorly the conversation goes, if Chris tells other employees
about it, they will take note of how you handled the situation, and it will contribute to
their perception of you. It guides their expectations of how you operate and how to
communicate with you, as this interaction is not only about you and Chris. You
represent the company and its reputation, and your professional display of concern as
you try to learn more sends a positive message. While the private, respectful meeting
may not be the perfect solution, it is preferable to the other approaches we have
considered.
One additional point to consider as you document this interaction is the need to present
the warning in writing. You may elect to prepare a memo that outlines the information
concerning Chris’s performance and tardiness and have it ready should you want to
present it. If the session goes well, and you have the discretion to make a judgment call,
you may elect to give him another week to resolve the issue. Even if it goes well, you may
want to present the memo, as it documents the interaction and serves as evidence of due
process should Chris’s behavior fail to change, eventually resulting in the need for
termination.
This combined approach of a verbal and written message is increasingly the norm in
business communication. In the next two sections, we’ll compare and contrast
approaches, verbal and written, and outline several best practices in terms of approach.
But first, we’ll outline the four main parts of a negative news message:
1. Buffer or cushion
2. Explanation
3. Negative news
4. Redirect
The first part of a negative news message, verbal or written, involves neutral or positive
information. This sets the tone and often serves as a buffer or cushion for the
information to come. Next, an explanation discusses why there is an issue in the first
place. This may be relatively simple, quite complex, or uncomfortable. In a journal
article titled “Further Conceptualization of Explanations in Negative News
Messages,” [2] Mohan Limaye makes the clear case that not only is an explanation a
necessary part of any negative news message, it is an ethical and moral requirement.
While an explanation is important, never admit or imply responsibility without written
authorization from your company cleared by legal counsel. The third part of the negative
news message involves the bad news itself, and the emphasis here is on clarity and
accuracy. Finally, the redirect may refocus attention on a solution strategy, an
alternative, or the subsequent actions that will take place. Table 17.1 “Negative News
Message Sample Script” provides an example that might apply in an external
communication situation.
Table 17.1 Negative News Message Sample Script
Parts of the
Negative News
Message
Example
Buffer or Cushion
Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our product.
Explanation
We are writing to let you know that this product has been unexpectedly popular, with
over 10,000 requests on the day you placed your order.
Negative News
This unexpected increase in demand has resulted in a temporary out-of-stock/backorder
situation. We will fulfill your order, received at 11:59 p.m. on 09/09/2009, in the order it
was received.
Redirect
We anticipate that your product will ship next Monday. While you wait, we encourage
you to consider using the enclosed $5 off coupon toward the purchase of any product in
our catalog. We appreciate your business and want you to know that our highest priority
is your satisfaction.
In Table 17.1 “Negative News Message Sample Script”, the neutral or positive news
comes first and introduces the customer to the overall topic. The explanation provides
an indication of the purpose of the communication, while the negative message directly
addresses how it affects the customer. The redirect discusses specific actions to take
place. In this case, it also includes a solution strategy enhanced with a soft sell message,
a subtle, low-pressure method of selling, cross-selling, or advertising a product or
service. Whether you are delivering negative news in person or in writing, the four main
parts of a negative message can help you meet all seven goals.
Before we move to the verbal and written delivery of the negative news message, we
need to offer a word of counsel. You want to avoid legal problems when communicating
bad news. You cannot always predict how others are going to respond, but you can
prepare for and deliver your response in ways that lower the risk of litigation in four
ways:
1. Avoid abusive language or behavior.
2. Avoid contradictions and absolutes.
3. Avoid confusion or misinterpretation.
4. Maintain respect and privacy.
Sarcasm, profanity, shouting, or abusive or derogatory language is an obstacle to clear
communication. Furthermore, such language can be interpreted as defamatory, or
harming the reputation of the person, possibly having a negative impact on their future
earnings. In written form, it is called libel. If you say it out loud, it is called slander.
While slander may be harder to prove, no defamatory remarks should be part of your
negative news message. Cell phones increasingly serve to record conversations, and you
simply never know if your words will come back to you in short order. Represent
yourself, the business, and the receiver of your message with professionalism and avoid
abusive or defamatory language.
You also want to avoid contradictions, as they only serve to invite debate. Make sure
your information is consistent and in agreement with the general information in the
conversation. If one part of the information stands out as a contradiction, its importance
will be magnified in the context and distract from your main message. Don’t provide
more information that is necessary. Polarizing, absolute terms like “always” and “never”
are often part of sweeping generalizations that are open to debate. Instead of saying,
“You are always late,” choose to say, “You were late sixteen times in May.” To avoid
confusion or misinterpretation, be precise and specific.
Always maintain respect and privacy. Making a negative statement about an employee
in front of a group of coworkers can be considered ridicule or harm, and in the coming
cases may be actionable and involve legal ramifications. In addition to the legal
responsibility, you have the overall goal of demonstrating professionalism as you
represent yourself and your company in maintaining the relationship with the employee,
even if the end goal is termination. Employees have retaliated against their
organizations in many ways, from discouraging remarks to vandalism and computer
viruses. Your goal is to avoid such behavior, not out of fear, but out of professionalism
and respect for yourself and your organization. Open lines of communication present in
a relationship can help reduce the risk of relational deterioration or animosity. The
sidebar below provides a checklist for delivering a negative message.
Negative Message Checklist
1. Clear goal in mind
2. Clear instructions from supervisor (legal counsel)
3. Clear understanding of message
4. Clear understanding of audience/reader
5. Clear understanding of procedure and protocol
6. Clear, neutral opening
7. Clear explanation without admission of guilt or culpability
8. Clear statement of impact or negative news
9. Clear redirect with no reminders of negative news
10. Clear results with acceptance or action on negative news
Presenting Negative News in Person
Most of us dislike conflict. It may be tempting to avoid face-to-face interaction for fear
of confrontation, but delivering negative news in person can be quite effective, even
necessary, in many business situations. When considering a one-on-one meeting or a
large, formal meeting, consider the preparation and implementation of the discussion.
The first step involves a clear goal. Stephen Covey (1989) recommends beginning with
the end in mind. [3] Do you want your negative news to inform, or to bring about change,
and if so what kind of change and to what degree? A clear conceptualization of the goal
allows you to anticipate the possible responses, to plan ahead, and to get your emotional
“house” in order.
Your emotional response to the news and the audience, whether it is one person or the
whole company, will set the tone for the entire interaction. You may feel frustrated,
angry, or hurt, but the display of these emotions is often more likely to make the
problem worse than to help solve it. Emotions can be contagious, and people will
respond to the emotional tone of the speaker.
If your response involves only one other person, a private, personal meeting is the best
option, but it may not be available. Increasingly people work and contribute to projects
from a distance, via the Internet, and may only know each other via e-mail, phone, or
videophone/videoconferencing services. A personal meeting may be impractical or
impossible. How then does one deliver negative news in person? By the best option
available to both parties. Written feedback may be an option via e-mail, but it takes time
to prepare, send, receive, process, and respond—and the written word has its
disadvantages. Miscommunication and misinterpretation can easily occur, with little
opportunity for constructive feedback to check meanings and clarify perceptions.
The telephone call allows both parties to hear each other’s voices, including the words,
the inflection, the disfluencies, and the emotional elements of conversation. It is
immediate in that the possibility of overlap is present meaning not only is proximity in
terms of voice as close as possible, but both parties may experience overlaps as they take
turns and communicate. Telephone calls allow for quick feedback and clarification
questions, and allow both parties an opportunity to recycle and revisit topics for
elaboration or a better understanding. They also can cover long distances with
reasonable clarity. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) allows you to do the same with
relatively little cost.
While there are distinct advantages, the telephone lacks part of the nonverbal spectrum
available to speakers in a live setting. On the telephone, proximity is a function of
response time rather than physical space and the degree to which one person is near
another. Time is also synchronous, though the telephone crosses time zones and
changes the context as one party may have just arrived at work while the other party is
leaving for lunch. Body language gets lost in the exchange as well, although many of us
continue to make hand gestures on the phone, even when our conversational partners
cannot see us. Paralanguage, or the sounds we hear that are not verbal, including pitch,
tone, rate, rhythm, pace, articulation, and pronunciation are all available to the listener.
As we can see, the telephone call allows for a richer communication experience than
written communication, but cannot convey as much information as would be available
in person. Just as a telephone interview may be used for screening purposes while a live
interview is reserved for the final candidates, th …
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