Rule #3: If you don’t share bad news candidly to the same degree you trumpet good news, kiss your credibility good-bye.

It’s hard to imagine a more crushing message to your own employees than allowing them to find out about negative developments involving their organization in the morning newspaper or from a competitor’s email… before management has bothered to tell them.

DPPR Employee Comms 4Talk about a blow to morale and ultimately productivity. Why not just send an all-staff memo that says “Sorry, but management doesn’t have sufficient confidence to trust you to properly deal with bad news.”

The most damning indicator of an ineffective or failed employee communications function happens when employees learn first about something important from any other source. That goes double for bad news.

If you want to insult your most important productive asset with “you can’t handle the truth,” regress back to the Mushroom Strategy. Shut off the flow of information just when it’s most needed and demanded.

When addressing negative developments, organizations get only one chance to avoid appearing defensive or prevent being tarnished with implied guilt. That one chance occurs before any other party reveals it.

So, if you know that bad news is going to come out anyway, tell your own people first. In doing so, you will effectively release it proactively and preemptively, which can also be an important signal to the news media and public that you are not hiding. Remember, in our culture, no comment implies “guilty as charged”.

Take all your hits in one round. Get all the bad news out at once. You’ll appear forthcoming while tamping down damaging rumors and speculation. And admit it if bad decisions or mistakes were made. People will view you favorably as a “stand-up” organization.

Yes, this is tough advice to take. Management’s commitment to candor and transparently will be severely tested. Nobody likes to deliver bad news, especially when it’s embarrassing and reflects negatively on their competence. But the alternative is far worse.

The best way to answer tough questions is to answer them before they’re asked. So address anything you think reasonable people will wonder about. You’ll actually enhance your own credibility if you do.

And yes, if the news is bad, important, potentially controversial or explosive, it will be leaked to the media and/or posted on-line nearly instantaneously. See Rule #1. Yes, it applies to unpleasant news just as it does to happy.

But this is not a bad thing. Remember how critical employees are in today’s social world. Having your own ambassadors become messengers for the company’s side of the story (faster and more persuasive than the news media) is the best guarantee that your information regarding the negative developments will be incorporated accurately with greater balance in the discussions and coverage that follow.

Greg Loh is the managing partner of public relations and public affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s leading independent marketing communications agencies. Views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of EMA.

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