Crisis Communication: How to Communicate Tough News

By Katlin Walters
July 11, 2019
7 min read

Every internal communicator is faced with the challenge of communicating tough news at some point in their career. Whether this means delivering an unpopular policy to staff, rejecting an application letter, or explaining why you can’t meet a deadline, it is equally important to understand the best practices of communicating bad news in business.

One of the biggest challenges in internal communications is spreading the message clearly and consistently to a large audience. When it comes to sending tough news messages within an organization, some methods are better than others, and in this post, we want to highlight the best way to communicate tough news in a written message or email. Generally speaking, there are four goals when communicating tough news:

  1. Give the news – make sure the news is clearly outlined and articulated so that there is no room for misinterpretation or confusion.
  2. Make the reader understand and accept the bad news – keeping your communication clear and providing evidence for the choices made, will help the individual understand the reasons for the news, and ultimately help them understand the logic behind why they are receiving the bad news.
  3. Maintain a good image of yourself, the individual and the organization – use professional language, be empathetic and conscious of the tone of voice you use. You don’t want the recipient to feel attacked or unimportant, as this can leave a negative image on yourself and your organization moving forward.
  4. Avoid creating a legal liability – avoid providing any sensitive or legal information that could be misused by the individual(s) receiving the news.

When should you deliver tough news in person?

Normally, when speaking to a large audience, a well-written, clear email will do the trick. In more personal or serious situations when you are speaking to an individual or a small group of individuals, it is suggested that the “higher up” you are in your position, the more likely it is that you will be delivering the news in person. This gives individuals a chance to ask questions. More sensitive and personal information should be delivered in person in a quiet, respectful environment.

Today we will focus on delivering tough news to a large audience in a message or email format. The following points should help as a guide when structuring your message to ensure the best use of clear layouts and clean language among the large group is being used.

Subject Line

Like any business communication, it is crucial to include a subject line on your email (check out this blog to find out more on how to write business email subject lines for everyday communication). When it comes to bad news messages, it is a general rule to keep the subject line language and tone neutral. It should not suggest that any positive or negative news is coming and should definitely not reveal the bad news. Negative subject lines can cause panic within an organization and might magnify the issues to be larger than they actually are.

Content of message

Understanding what to include in your bad newsletter is crucial when organizing your messages in a logical, neutral and empathetic way. Use the following content structure as a guide to help the flow of your message and to make sure you are communicating your message as clearly and consistently as possible.

1. The Buffer

Although dancing around the tough news is generally not a good idea, it is still okay to include a buffer at the beginning of your message. The buffer is a neutral or positive opening that does not reveal the negative news. A buffer helps the reader feel open to receiving the information in the message and helps take away the barrier one might have when they sense negative news coming their way.

An example of an appropriate buffer would be a relevant, sincere compliment or expressing appreciation for the relevant initiative demonstrated by that/those individuals.

2. The Reasons

The next step is to outline your reasons, which are simply your reasons behind why the bad news is being delivered. Typically, organizing the reasons in a logical order by starting the list with the easiest for the reader to accept, helps guide the reader along the journey that led you to make the decision. Highlight the reader benefits for each reason you give to ensure the reader that you have sincerely considered their feelings. Also, keeping a positive tone and continuing to highlight the evidence that the matter was considered fairly and seriously will help make the reader feel like you genuinely care about how this news affects them. 

3. The Main Idea/ Tough News

Once you feel that you’ve appropriately prepared the recipient, you can now give the tough news in a clear, firm and objective way. You can decide whether you’d like to blatantly to state the news directly, or have it be implied if you are confident that it will be understood correctly. Make sure to dedicate a separate paragraph to this part of your message to help keep clarity and to make easier for the reader to refer back to if needed. This is the most challenging part of the message so don’t be afraid to take some extra time to craft this paragraph. A second opinion from an unrelated person is also helpful to make sure that an appropriate and friendly tone is being used.

4. Provide an Alternative or Compromise

Because we never want to leave our readers high and dry, it is important to provide them with a realistic and useful alternative or compromise that they can act on immediately after the message has been received. Typically placing this section right after the tough news is best practice. This will help deemphasize the news and help re-open the reader’s willingness to accept and compromise with you. Some appropriate alternatives or compromises include:

  • A partial yes
  • A substitute
  • A future possibility

5. Closing the Message

Finally, it’s time to close your message. Try to avoid repeating the bad news or referring to possible future problems, as this will only leave your reader discouraged. Instead, try to close the message on a positive note by providing more information about the alternative you provided earlier, wish them well or, acknowledge your excitement to see them at a future event. This will help leave your reader feeling optimistic rather than discouraged about future possibilities. Additionally, avoid encouraging a response in relation to the bad news unless you feel it is appropriate for the issue at hand. Instead, encourage responses focused on the alternative or compromise you suggested in your message to continue to highlight the positives.

6. Provide Necessary Information on Single Source of Truth

Now that you have successfully written the bad news message, it is time to add the final touch – the links that will answer any basic additional questions that your readers might have. By posting these important links on your company’s single source of truth, you will be able to minimize the back and forth in the email, while also avoiding a long email thread with a long list of recipients. Let the readers have an opportunity to read more for themselves before initiating further contact. This will help them sort the situations out in their own minds first while also settling any negative emotions one might have from the news.

Put this information after the closing paragraph and before your email signature. By separating this information to the bottom of the page and in its own paragraph, you will be helping the readers navigate the message and find the links again if they need to refer back to it. Most importantly, by posting additional resources and links on your company’s intranet, you will be showing transparency which every employee appreciates.

This method will be useful when communicating with bigger audiences since it follows a logical format and is based on information and facts rather than thoughts and opinions. By following this simple layout, you will be able to organize your thoughts and reasonings in a valid, logical way which will make it easier for everyone involved to understand. We all know that giving bad news is never something to be desired, but there are ways to make it less painful and awkward. Be mindful, purposeful, empathetic and objective, while taking the time to write a nice email for those recipients.  For more information about sending tough news within organizations, don’t hesitate to reach out and contact us, we’d love to chat more.

By Katlin Walters

Katlin is a former IC team member.