Home Archive January 2009 And now for the bad news
Friday, 23 January 2009 15:24

In a struggling economy, organisations are looking at the way they deliver unpleasant news to stakeholders. But what do they need to keep in mind and where can they get help? Neil Gibbons reports:

"I think you’d better sit down" may be the most trite way to break bad news but, for many, it’s the best we’ve got. Hackneyed opening gambits like this go to show one thing: delivering bad news is not getting any easier. But in a time of job losses, profit warnings, and share price collapses, more and more organisations are having to deliver tough tidings to a raft of disgruntled stakeholders. And they’re turning to the experts to make sure they get it right. “There’s certainly a demand for it. We’ve never been busier,” says Warwick Partington, CEO of Media Training Masterclasses, a training firm based in the Cotswolds. “At times of market uncertainty, organisations need help either reassuring stakeholders that things are going well or communicating the fact they’re not. Either way, the message has to be clear.”

But why the need for expert help? Surely, as senior executives, these people are experienced and hard-nosed enough to know how bad news should be communicated? Not necessarily, says Stephen Watson, managing director of CTN Communications in London. He argues that the desire to seek advice is a result of the relatively bullish times we’ve enjoyed for so long. “Most managers and professional communicators in international businesses – especially banking – have not had cause to use the language that’s necessary now in communicating very difficult concepts,” he says. “A few are old enough to have been around in senior positions in the 1980s so they have some appreciation of the cycle and how to deal with it.

Bad news delivered well

Richard Branson at the Cumbria train crash, in February 2007. “He stood up and gave an authentic message about how he felt about the crash and what Virgin Trains were going to do to find out what had happened and help those affected,” says Warwick Partington.

Peugeot Citroen announcing the closure of the Ryton car plant, in April 2006. “The event was well planned, the messages thought through, and relevant presentations and support mechanisms prepared,” says Partington. “The CEO did the announcement personally and had ensured all the managers responsible for the closedown were fully briefed and trained.”

But for the vast majority, their challenges have come amid growth, success and in sharing visions and values. Suddenly that world has changed. It’s really sorting the men from the boys. A lot just don’t have the experience to instinctively get this right, so there’s an appetite to learn.” That isn’t to say executives have turned into gibbering wrecks in the face of imparting unpleasant truths. The help they seek is at the sophisticated end of the spectrum. “I’m cautious about the T word – training,” says Watson. “A CEO is not going to be learning a new set of tools. It’s more about taking a step back and looking at the psychology, style and tone. It’s about preparation.”

Sculpting the message

So where to begin? “The starting point is working out what you want to say,” says Partington. “Look at the key messages. What’s the story? What needs to happen next? And look at all the different angles.” That process, of pulling and prodding at the message to test its robustness, is something on which all trainers set great store. Kicking it around properly will help those communicating it to step back and appreciate the context into which, and out of which, it is being delivered. An awareness of the external context, like the economic downturn for example, will help to shape what is said – and specifically how it relates to the organisation. At the same time, an understanding of how the organisation is perceived externally is helpful. “Job losses, for example, can be taken two ways,” says Andrew Caesar-Gordon, managing director of training firm Electric Airwaves. “If a well-respected successful brand announces bad news, it can cause confusion among the public, but when a company like BT puts out news of job losses and it can be better for the brand because it shows a willingness to cut costs. You need to know your audience.” In bad times more than ever, a message needs to be consistent, clear and frank. Of course, being consistent isn’t the same as delivering an identikit message to all and sundry. Caesar-Gordon is a firm advocate of tailoring the news to the relevant group stakeholders. “The fragmentation of different audiences is a good thing. It gives you a greater opportunity to tailor the news to small discrete audiences. You can’t send the same releases out to everybody.” He also believes in personalising the message depending on who it is coming from. At Electric Airwaves, he conducts group workshops in which several members of an organisation work on a unified message with each thinking about how it pertains to their function, enabling them to respond to the questions they are likely to be asked. With the stakes and emotions equally high, retaining clarity of message becomes especially vital. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity. “Audiences can only take on two or three messages,” says Partington. “So there’s no point in trying to communicate any more, especially to an audience that could be quite emotional. They start thinking of how the news will affect them, rather than concentrating on what else you’re telling them.”

No more spin

Meanwhile, frankness is considered a basic requirement in an age when spin is scorned more than ever. “In bad times, people’s bullshit antennae are very highly tuned,” says Watson. “There’s zero appetite for people who pump out a polished line and aren’t levelling with people. The time for pedalling a line and glossing over bad news is over.” That doesn’t mean that organisations should feel inhibited about working out ways to drive home the narrative they want, especially in media relations. “The real lesson is in how to exploit the media opportunity to make sure you communicate that narrative,” says Caesar-Gordon. “As long as you don’t sound like Gordon Brown, delivering your three key messages no matter what the question was.” To avoid an obvious parroting of a company line, Partington helps managers identify routes to the chosen message. “It’s what the French called the argumentaire,” he says. “It’s the pathways leading from the issues that have been raised to the fundamental points you want to make.” But while this thoroughness is desirable, it’s not always practical: when bad news needs to be disclosed, time is almost always a factor. Any excessively diligent communicator can be wrongfooted by speed. “Communication for a merger, for example, can be honed over a year or two,” says Watson. “But it’s different for bad news. If your share price collapses, you’ll be lucky to get a week. So people are adopting the 80% rule. The timeline is an absolute driver. If you wait for perfection, you can find yourself overtaken by events. “These are the skills that politicians have honed. Increasingly, people in business no longer have the luxury of the considered approach.”

A changing language

Once the message has been mapped out, it’s important to consider precisely how it is communicated. As with any type of communication, form is almost as important as content, and harbingers of bad news need to think carefully about how they articulate the message. “Language has to change inside the organisation,” says CTN’s Watson. “It needs to be candid, realistic, consistent and accessible – not cause blind panic.” Caesar-Gordon places great emphasis on a lexicon that aligns the communicator with his or her audience. Gordon Brown, he says, is a shining example of what not to do. “His language is sympathetic, not empathetic,” he says. “You watch him on TV talking about the economy and he talks in the third person – it’s never ‘we’. He’s in my living room but he’s not talking to me.” Of course, language is only half of the battle. Partington – himself a former broadcaster – insists it’s not too contrived for senior management to work on their non-verbal performance skills. “Having worked out your arguments, decide what emotions you need to communicate,” he says. “That includes understanding your use of voice and nonverbal communication.” He too points to the PM as a beacon of poor communication, even showing a clip of Brown’s delivery in his training sessions. “It’s important to engage with the audience, especially if you’re giving them bad news,” he adds. “You need to reflect the emotions of the audience – don’t sound too matter of fact. Share the emotional effect – if the news is concerning, sound concerned.” Media Training Masterclasses goes as far as to employ voice and performance coaches from leading UK drama schools to help drill otherwise stilted executives. But not all firms see much value in that form of coaching. According to Caesar-Gordon of Electric Airwaves, “How-to-do-an-interview lessons are the least valuable. If you’re bright, which most of the people you train are, it takes about five minutes.” Nevertheless, Partington believes the peculiar pressure of imparting negative news – especially to a large group – requires this kind of practice. “Many people are able to do one-on-ones but struggle to communicate empathy when they’re in front of larger groups,” he says. “Adrenalin can take over so their voices don’t always match their intended emotions.” Not all training companies provide how-to lessons in news delivery, but all seek to put communicators through their paces in authentic conditions. CTN Communications boasts a broadcast studio in its St Martin’s Lane HQ. “We use it as an electronic space, an electronic mirror,” says Watson. “They come in and experiment and try out their message. It’s from a standing start; they can’t get it right straight away. That’s why we give them a practice run recreating the set-up.” Caesar-Gordon agrees that communicators can retain greater control if they’re properly prepared. To that end, the firm employs 50 print and broadcast journalists and performs dry-runs in its own TV and radio studio. “They’re not ex-journalists,” he says. “They’re those at the coalface, so that have an awareness of what’s going on in the media. As well as its use of voice and drama tutors, Media Training Masterclasses uses a business psychologist to get the approach right, and to help in developing the leadership mindset. Its training system has been developed over 12 years.

Bad news delivered badly

Lapland New Forest children’s theme park closes down, December 2008. After 2,000 complaints in its first week, the website went offline, the directors could not be tracked down and the media fed on what it could find. “The owner could have nipped it in the bud but they hid away,” says Caesar- Gordon. “BBC News could only speak to a security guard who said that he’d been “ashamed to work there”.

Institute for Animal Health in Surrey after the foot-and-mouth outbreak in October 2007. “It was caused by their faulty drains,” says Partington. “But they tried to deflect blame to another organisation on the site before the real cause had been fully investigated.”

Haringey Borough Council after the case of Baby P, November 2008. “Days and days went by, and all people wanted to hear was ‘We’re sorry’,” says Caesar-Gordon. “And then it transpired they’d spent £19,000 on media training. The training was either bad or not listened to.”

 Making the most of media

So you’ve locked down the message, finessed the language in which it will be presented and practised delivering it under authentic, pressurised conditions. Organisations now have to think about the medium they want to use. Among today’s sprawling media, the choice is vast. Empathy can be hard to transmit when the size of an audience prohibits personal dialogue. But, says Watson, it is incumbent on chief executives to deliver communications in as personal a way as possible. “They can’t hide behind the HR department. That’s the price of business leadership – being the primary communicator.” Fortunately, channels of communication are changing to help create a more direct link. CEOs are having to speak at town hall meetings, on internet webcasts, and video conferences. “In international business, people ideally want to talk face to face,” he says. “But traditionally the speed of events often meant one-on-ones couldn’t happen. Instead, they’d face large town hall style meetings. “But it’s different this time. The digital revolution means there are different ways for leadership to have a dialogue that are interactive, direct and effective. There’s the opportunity to ask questions. Management can be addressing an audience of 500, while at the same time talking to others in New York, Tokyo and Frankfurt. It’s possible now with live streaming and digital tools to really bring an organisation together.”