newspaper clippings of bad news headlines

Unfortunately, for every company there comes a time when you have to break bad news.  Breaking bad news to stakeholders is never pleasant. But communicating in the wrong way can make things even worse. Therefore, it’s important to know the best practices for successfully breaking bad news.


Do not delay


Usually when a company has negative news, they don’t want to talk about it.  They tend to want to push the matter under the rug and hope that it will either go away or that things will improve.  The truth is that delaying bad news is just compounding the issue.  You cannot wait.  When bad news needs to be communicated, you must develop a plan of action and proceed without delay.  Waiting will only cost you more as things continue to get worse.


One reason companies delay is that they don’t have all the information.  Yet, waiting until you know all the facts can be a costly mistake. When people don’t know the facts, they fear the worst.  Companies can become a trusted source of information by saying, “We don’t know all the facts yet, but we will share with you what we know, so far.”


Do not hide the facts


You absolutely cannot sugarcoat bad news.  If you are downplaying a serious product issue yet the public hears in the news about concerns related to your product, your brand loyalty is going south fast! It will become evident quickly that you attempted to cover up what was really at stake.   Even if what is happening is your fault, own it and be honest.


One of our clients recently had a pipeline explosion that caused damage in a community.  The spokesperson for the company was an engineer and long-term employee.  He also lived in the community.  He told the company he would not be the spokesperson unless they let him apologize on behalf of the company and take responsibility for what happened.  He felt that he owed that to his neighbors. That approach worked.  It created trust with the stakeholders who were affected.


If you don’t have answers to the questions you know will be coming, tell them that.  Communicate that you need more time if you don’t know the answers. Another client was shutting down a plant and needed to communicate this to employees.  The facility had historical significance in the community.  It had been an employer there for almost 100 years.  The plan they developed was to bring the plant manager in, have him communicate the closure and then be escorted out the back door without taking questions.  They devised this plan because they didn’t have answers about severance pay or other questions they knew would be asked.


We directed them to be honest and not hide the fact that at that moment they had no answers.  We also explained that their employees needed to feel that they were being heard.  In other words, it was important to listen to the questions even though they didn’t have the answers.  Listening would create a bond of trust as well as give the company valuable information about what mattered to their people.


Even though the people at the plant were impacted in a big way, they were not mad at the company.  They talked about them positively and the plant closing went as well as it possibly could have.


Unfortunately, for every company there comes a time when you have to break bad news.  Breaking bad news to stakeholders is never pleasant.  But communicating in the wrong way can make things even worse. Therefore, it’s important to know the best practices for successfully breaking bad news.Showing that you respect your audience by being transparent helps develop a foundation of trust that will be needed to keep a positive image of your company.  In this example, when it was communicated that answers would come, the employees were able to work with the company, not against it.


Create advocacy


Once you have communicated your bad news your next step is to create advocates by giving your employees and board members good information to share with others. You must be completely honest and keep your audience’s best interests at heart.  You may think that there is no way that people will be advocates for your company when you may be impacting them negatively but they will be.  Like in the example of the historical plant closing, those employees became advocates of the company even though they were negatively impacted.


Use your own communication channels like email and social media to rebuild your brand’s reputation and to gain the trust of your stakeholders.  By using a proactive social media strategy, you can put the face of your executives in front of millions very quickly.  Blue Bell Creameries published a YouTube video of their CEO apologizing after the listeria outbreak which was viewed by many.


Several years ago when Toyota had major recall issues, they sent emails out regularly to employees about their progress.  They also included positive information about safety awards they had won and what they were doing to fix the problem.  Not only did this strategy give their employees great talking points when asked about the company but also the company encouraged their employees to share these emails with family and friends.   All of your communication channels can be used to create advocates and build trust.


During a time of bad news, your actions will either build or diminish your future credibility very quickly.  Don’t risk losing the trust of your stakeholders. Consider these points or visit our crisis communications page to assure that you are communicating in the right way. If you would like additional training on best practices of how to break bad news,  reach out to us to discuss how we can help your team prepare for bad times. You can also get more tips by subscribing to our newsletter.