No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. And yet as a leader, there will be times when you’ll have the unpleasant duty of sharing news your audience doesn’t want to hear. Perhaps you had a factory strike on account of which your clients’ shipments will be delayed by some months. Or perhaps a scandal about one of your senior leaders has come to light. What is vital in situations like this is to convey the facts honestly and in a manner that avoids bad faith and potential PR crises. Here are some tips on how to communicate when the going gets tough.
- Own the situation – When something goes wrong, the wisest option for you as a leader is to own what happened. Be direct about the fact that there is bad news and that you and your company respect the gravity of the matter.
- Be clear and succinct – Many leaders end up hedging and trying to put off the moment of truth for as long as they can. Your audience, however, deserves to know the truth promptly. Prepare a clear statement on what the decision is, the rationale behind it, and what were the other options that were considered. You can practise beforehand to make sure you’re getting your points across effectively.
- Be sensitive – Often, the issue you are talking about could be one that engenders polarised views. There are differing opinions, for instance, about the ongoing Russia- Ukraine war. It’s essential to stick to the facts in these cases without pandering to or shutting down either side.
- Anticipate questions – Whether you’re speaking to a newsroom or engaging in a live chat forum, there will be questions. Anticipate these and have answers ready, even on the tough topics you might not want to talk about. News travels fast in today’s connected world, so be honest from the get-go and avoid glossing over things.
- Talk about the action you are taking – Apologies are necessary, of course, but they mean very little unless they’re backed up by remedial action. Be specific about what you’re doing to fix the problem, be it eliminating the product/process at fault or offering compensation to those who were the victims of the problem.
- Know beforehand what you aren’t going to say – Sounding confident is key to reassuring your audience when delivering bad news, and a big part of that is knowing exactly what to avoid talking about and what to say if questions on those topics do come up. It is important to do so in an assured fashion – avoid gestures like slumping or not making eye contact, which could send mixed messages.
- Maintain a respectful, considerate tone – While owning the situation is important, avoid coming across as heavy-handed or overconfident about fixing things. Be mindful throughout in your tone of voice and choice of words.
- Express empathy – In addition to sounding considerate, it is vital to express your empathy for the audience receiving the bad news. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes and express the sentiments that you would want to hear if you were receiving the bad news. At the same time, don’t be overly emotional or try to sugarcoat the facts. Quiet authority is the best way to go.
- End on a positive note – And by this, we don’t mean false platitudes about ‘everything being okay’. This is where you restate your commitment to serving your customer now and always, and your commitment to making things right after having failed.
It’s never easy sharing bad news with anyone, but the truth is that it doesn’t have to be complicated either. With honesty, empathy and the right touch of class, you can de-escalate almost any situation no matter how tough the news you’re conveying.