Crisis communication: how to deliver bad news effectively

No matter what line of work you’re in, or which position you hold in your organization, you will have to deliver bad news. It might be that a project is delayed or that the product you delivered has some critical flaw that will cost your company thousands (or millions). It might be that your website is down and each minute it’s down is costing your company money.

Maybe the news you’re delivering is a result of a mistake you made, or it might be a larger business or structural issue that you have to address, unpleasant as it is.

How do you go about delivering?

While there is definitely nuance and difference from crisis to crisis,  there are some universal tips about crisis communication:

  1. Decide who needs to know and how much they should know: In most situations, you have multiple levels of stakeholders. I divide stakeholders into two categories: fixers and authorities. The fixers are people who have an active role in resolving your crisis, e.g. your IT team who’ll fix the website failure, or the customer service team who’ll need the right information to share with customers. Then you have the authorities who are usually managers and senior managers who need to know what happened, what went wrong and how you’re fixing it. My thumb rule is to contact the fixers first and then proceed to the next step, which is…. 
  2.  Be the preemptive bearer of bad news: it’s always better to be the one to tell the story, versus wait to perfect the message and then lose time as rumors spread or others get to tell their version of what happened, which may or may not be accurate. How do you deliver the bad news? You proceed to step 3 which is… 
  3. Be honest– tell people what you know and what you don’t: it’s  a bad idea to wait for the full story to come out and then update people. You’re better off telling people what you know and what you don’t yet know. For example, in my line of work, we rely on an ecommerce platform to convert campaign prospects into members. Sometimes the platform goes down. Rather than wait to fix the whole problem and then update people, I prefer to do both simultaneously so that key stakeholders know I have the issue under control and that it’s being resolved.So I might say– “this is the problem. We’re resolving it now. I will have an update at X time. I know that it affects this set of customers, but doesn’t affect this other group; I’ll have more details at noon.”
  4.  When you’re thinking about what to communicate to each stakeholder, put yourself in his/her shoes: what’s worrying her? Is it customer complaints? How she’ll explain it to her boss? Is he worried that this is a symptom of a larger problem that is his pet peeve? Whatever it is, make sure to address that stakeholder’s concern in your communication to him/her. If you’re explaining the issue to a customer service person, provide him or her with talking points on what to say to angry customers. If you’re talking to your manager, provide an overview of what went wrong, what you’re doing to address it AND what underlying systemic issue this problem ties to that you’ll work to resolve once this immediate situation is resolved. 
  5. Communication and action are equally important: While it’s important to communicate to the right people, your communication is the most effective when it conveys what action is being taken to resolve or bring closure to the issue. So if your website is down, aside from informing key stakeholders of this, you would of course work with your IT team to resolve the problem. You’ll also want to consider ALL your stakeholders– not just the ones you see everyday, but the people who rely on your product or service, whether it’s customers, offsite employees or others.  And, because action is constant and changes are happening rapidly, you want to… 
  6. Constantly update: As the crisis is resolved, provide constant status updates calibrated to that audience, so they know where the issue stands. I use the phrase “calibrated to that audience” because you want to provide them with the highlights that matter to their work and area. Customer service people aren’t interested in the IT minutiae– they just want to know when the problem is being fixed and what to say in the meantime. Conveying competence and responsibility are important. You want to leave all stakeholders involved with a sense that you’ve got this– even if the situation is to no one’s liking.

Crisis communication is inevitably stressful. But done right, it reflects on you at your best– it shows your manager that you can handle a challenging situation with presence of mind, thoughtfulness and grace under pressure– all qualities that bode well for future promotion opportunities.