As a crisis manager, I’m often asked by clients how to deliver bad news, position them in a favorable light, deflect unwelcome attention and keep things from leaking.
We often forget that, at its core, business communication is about people. It’s about sharing wins with our supporters, evoking emotions through storytelling, reassuring worried minds and the list goes on.
I began my career writing breakup letters for friends in elementary school. No matter what I’ve done in my life, people have always felt comfortable confiding in me. Today, as a crisis manager who handles extremely high-profile cases, I routinely navigate the ins and outs of turbulent situations — and clients always appreciate the calm and reassuring guidance.
You’d be surprised at the similarities between business communications during a crisis and breakup letters scribbled on three-ring binder paper from the ’80s/’90s. It’s about delivering bad news in the nicest way possible.
Some business people are skittish about calling something a “crisis.” They prefer synonyms like “issue” or “situation.” But it often all boils down to the same thing.
In the span of a month, I’ve handled an attempted shooting, misuse of funds, partnership and boardroom disputes, smear campaigns, a government investigation, litigation that threatened a business’ operations and false allegations that sought to disrupt the launch of a new product that was critical to a company’s future.
So whether you call it a crisis, issue or situation, remember that when you’re sharing your message, it’s not about you. It’s about the recipient.
The dynamics of advising friends on the playground and strategizing with clients in conference rooms are similar. Both scenarios are relatively straightforward: “I don’t know what to do! I need your advice.” (Followed by a detailed explanation of the situation.) “What should I say? How do I tell them?”
Here are some basic components for your business communications strategy — or breakup letters:
Figure out your goal — and stick to it. If you don’t know what you hope to achieve, you run the risk of missing the mark. By knowing clearly what you’re seeking, you’re better equipped to filter out the noise and stay focused on what’s most important.
How does your story sound? To get buy-in, your story must be believable. If it sounds half-baked, it’ll raise more questions, and people are more likely to pick your entire story apart.
How well someone takes bad news depends on how it’s administered. It isn’t just about the content. When crafting your communications, you must consider the context, timing and tone. How much or how little does the recipient already know? How much do they need to know? Does the situation require immediate attention, or do you have time to let the dust settle first? Does what you say and do require a straightforward, legal-minded approach or a personal touch?
How is the messenger acting or perceived? The messenger usually bears the brunt of the negative feedback surrounding bad news, sometimes unfairly so. No matter the situation, it’s better to choose a messenger who’s understanding and sympathetic, instead of one who’s viewed as cold and calculating.
Of course, “ghosting” is never appropriate whether you’re disappearing from a personal relationship or falling silent during a time of need in your business.