How to deliver bad news

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As a marketing copywriter, I’m asked to communicate all sorts of messages for different clients. Most of the time, it’s good news that I get to deliver. Upbeat, full-of-energy, positive messages.

But what happens if you have to deliver bad news?

Contrary to the tactics of political spin-doctors, you should not try to sugar-coat bad news. It doesn’t work. In fact, it amplifies the fall-out.

Here are my tips on how to deliver bad news and get the acceptance you need.

1.     Act quickly

As soon as you learn of a crisis you need to prepare your communications. Whether it’s workplace redundancies, an impact on your share price or an event that will affect your customers, you need to be the one to communicate. Do not sit on your hands and wait for the news to get out through other channels.

2.     Be very clear

You should communicate firstly (and directly) with those who are most affected by the news. Use clear, easily understood language and make sure the tone of the writing suits the gravity of the situation.

3.     Apologise

Your writing must have genuine and honest empathy for the impact the news has on the reader. Saying you’re ‘sorry’ is not an admission of guilt. But if the outcome is your fault, do not try to duck and weave from that fact. Accept responsibility if appropriate. 

4.     Explain

What happened? Give the reader the facts you have to date – and also identify what you don’t yet know. Explain what you are doing to alleviate the circumstances right now, and what you are doing to mitigate future risk. Do not hide behind company policies or rules, and avoid attributing blame to other parties. It’s so important to demonstrate your professionalism through your response.

5.     Close confidently

Don’t try to be overly cheery, but try to close your letter with a confident tilt to the future. If the news is truly calamitous, provide contact points within your organisation for people who want more information. And provide the timing on when you will update your audience with further details.

Remember, the ultimate aim in ‘bad news’ communications is to have your reader understand your explanation, accept it and manage the outcome. It doesn’t mean you won’t get hate-mail. But at least you won’t be accused of spinning bull.