[This article originally appeared in the February 2006 (Vol. 29, No. 2) issue of The Editorial Eye.]
On January 24, 2003, a team of NASA engineers held a briefing to warn about the potential hazard to the space shuttle of flying debris. They had found that foam insulation on the external fuel tank could cause catastrophic damage to the heat shield during a launch. Because the key points of their warning were obscured by jargon and buried in the final bullet point of a hard-to-read PowerPoint slide, the message never got through the NASA bureaucracy. One week later, the Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board.
We may not be in a similar position, with lives depending on our messages. More often, we’ll be called on to draft a message to employees about impending layoffs, or a letter to stockholders about recent financial problems. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, but when the task falls to us, professional ethics demand that we not flinch from laying out the message as clearly as we can. Doing so takes honesty, sensitivity, and humanity.
Be as honest as you can be
Perhaps the biggest barrier in these situations is the fear of coming right out and saying it. There’s a tendency to bury bad news at the bottom of a list of unrelated items—the hit-and-run technique—or cloak in spin and euphemism.
So instead of talking about a product’s serious flaws, a press release refers to “quality issues.” An annual report celebrates “our accomplishments,” and relegates the announcement that employee raises are on hold for the fourth year to a note in a subsection titled “Challenges.” If a team misses its sales goals, the manager’s status update cheerfully asserts that “the pipeline is full,” painting a hopeful future over a bleak today.
Then there are the euphemisms for people losing their jobs. Companies undergo downsizing, rightsizing, realignment, or reengineering, and so they perform a headcount adjustment or RIF (reduction in force). Employees learn that their services are no longer required, that they are non-essential, and that they’ve been laid off, made redundant, let go, furloughed, separated, outplaced, eased out, or unassigned. Older workers often find that they’ve been given the golden handshake, early retirement, early out, or buyout.
But attempts to conceal, distract from, or put a falsely positive spin on bad news will only make readers more antagonistic when they see through it. Tell the truth—as much of it, and as early, clearly, and directly as you can. As Rosalie Maggio, author of How to Say It, said in an e-mail interview, “Listeners and readers have a good sense of when they’re hearing a load of horse pucky.”
Remember, though, that it might not be necessary or appropriate to tell the whole truth. “Not all information is suitable for all audiences, whether they’re employees, stockholders, or whatever,” Maggio said, “Still, nothing untrue can be said. You might not have to tell all the truth, but what you tell must be true.”
Focus on the key message each audience needs. Consider the recent example of pet food contaminated with aflatoxin, which causes severe liver damage. When the contamination was discovered, the manufacturer, Diamond Pet Food, issued an immediate recall of the affected product. But in a case of burying the lead, the press release announcing the recall didn’t mention the danger until the fifth paragraph. Even then, the severity of the problem wasn’t mentioned; the release said that if a pet exhibits any signs of illness “please consult your veterinarian immediately.” Meanwhile, more than 100 dogs had already died, and hundreds of other dogs might develop chronic liver disease or liver cancer.
But there was an ironic backlash against the initially tepid corporate reaction. TV news programs reported on the problem so pet owners would be aware of its urgency, citing the company’s own “concern” that so few had responded to the recall! Perhaps if the initial press release hadn’t been so casual and vague, more pet owners might have paid attention and vets would have realized sooner why they were seeing so many dogs with liver damage, for which there is no treatment except time and luck. This was a case of trying to spin what should never have been spun—and in fact could not be.
Be sensitive to the sound of the words
Being “clear and direct” doesn’t mean we should be “blunt and brutal” in the words we choose or how we phrase the information.
Word choice: There is no guarantee that your message won’t offend, but some words are more likely to prove inflammatory. For example, using reckless when describing an accident or describing litigation as baseless might give the wrong impression to readers who aren’t involved, and antagonize those who are. Likewise, be very cautious with words such as clearly or obviously—“Obviously, we’re doing everything we can…”—because things might not be clear or obvious to your readers. And don’t use modifiers that magnify a situation, making it more dramatic than it is—“…the bleakest chapter in MegaCorp’s history…” At the same time, don’t minimize it, such as saying a toaster that bursts into flames has “a slight problem.”
Active vs. passive voice: Bearing unhappy news is one of the times when using passive voice can be appropriate. If it’s beside the point to place or accept direct blame, choose the diplomatic, nonaccusatory, passive “mistakes were made” approach. When the message includes an acceptance of responsibility and an apology, an unvarnished, unambiguous “We screwed up and we’re sorry” can be gold.
Sincerity: If you’re communicating to an internal audience, use language that sincerely projects regret and sympathy, making a connection with the reader that conveys the messenger’s genuine emotional reaction. Sincerity is key here. Maggio puts it this way: “A truly sincere delivery will pretty much leave your reader helpless to be angry.”
The lighter side: You might be able to use humor to defuse a touchy situation, but be extremely wary. First, some people are simply not adept at using humor in the best of circumstances; in a bad-news message it can easily back-fire, coming across as a feeble attempt to manipulate the audience. Also, not everyone is able to appreciate the humor of some situations. Joking about the “extended vacations” of newly laid-off employees would be the height of insensitivity.
The brighter side: Avoiding humor doesn’t mean that you can’t try to temper bad news with some good news. Done clumsily—with an artificial or a completely unrelated “bright side”—it will look like an attempt to sugar coat the truth. But if it’s done well, if the news is indeed good and true, it really can be a “spoonful of sugar” that helps put things in context. In the absence of good news, letting your readers know what is being done about the situation—and if appropriate, what they can do—can help.
Above all, remember to keep a human tone, especially when the message is a difficult one. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, reminds us that in all our writing we must “…remember that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like ‘profitability’ or with Latinate nouns like ‘utilization’ and ‘implementation,’ or with inert constructions in which nobody can be visualized doing something: ‘pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage.’”
This human touch is even more important when the news is bad. The management of Independence Air showed this when they announced they were ending operations. A company spokesman told reporters “It’s very emotional for a lot of our people and our customers,” putting a human face on a bottom-line business decision. A letter to customers on their Web site said “Today is a sad day for Independence Air. Today is a sad day for our customers who have gotten used to tender loving service and paying less for air travel. We will miss serving you. Thank you for your vigorous support.”
Perhaps the ultimate in bad-news delivery is performed by the military’s CNOs—casualty notification officers. The Defense Department has created a 59-page manual to guide these officers through the process of informing families about the death of a loved one. Gerald Merna, a retired Marine, described his experiences as a CNO during the Gulf War in 1991: “In the end, there is only one way to make the compassionate connection that can ease a family’s grief, and it cannot be found in scripts and regulations. Read the pamphlet…and then forget it, and rely on good old common sense and human instinct. Speak from the heart.”
This article was originally printed in The Editorial Eye, 66 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314-5507, (703) 683-0683.
Copyright © 2006 Roy Jacobsen. All rights reserved. You can print ONE copy of this article for personal use. Other than that, you can’t reproduce this article by any means without written permission from the author.