Three Mile Island and other meltdowns: the 5-step guide to breaking bad news

Steven Fink helped Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh manage the daddy of all crises: 1979’s partial meltdown at a nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island. Now he’s written a book on crisis communications, which includes tips for breaking bad news.

There will come a time where the chief executive needs to convey bad news during a corporate crisis, Fink writes in Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message.

His over-arching advice (with apologies to his female readers) is to “man up” and assume all responsibility where it is due, reminding his audience that General Dwight Eisenhower had prepared a handwritten note accepting blame, which was to be released in the event the Normandy invasion had failed.

Announcing a bunch of retrenchments at your workplace might not quite be D-Day, but Fink advises the chief executive performing this unenviable task to use notes too.

“You don’t want to forget anyone or anything under the stress you are experiencing,” he writes.

He says there are five rules to being the bearer of bad tidings. The bad news should be communicated:

1. Calmly

It will serve no one’s interest if your anxiety, your uncertainty or your perspiration show through.

2. Honestly

More than ever, tell it like it is. There is little worse than being caught in a lie when you are already conveying bad news. Why would you want to run the risk of compounding the severity of what you are saying with a falsehood?

3. Succinctly

Don’t elaborate unless it is called for, and don’t speculate. Say what you have to and leave the stage, unless you are prepared to answer questions. On occasion, we [Fink’s Lexicon Communication Corp.] have arranged to convey bad news in two or more stages. First, the manager reads an announcement to the assembled workers. Perhaps a written handout is provided that repeats the announcement. Later that day, after people have had a chance to process the news, the managers reassemble the workers in small groups for a candid Q&A session.

4. Factually

Make certain that whatever you say is factually true and (if appropriate) provable. Giving wrong information, even inadvertently, is counterproductive to your goals.

5. ‘Sandwiched’

One of the most effective methods for conveying bad news is the ‘sandwich technique’. There are three basic steps: First, provide a positive statement about the progress being made. Second, deliver the bad news. Third, provide a positive statement and assessment about solutions. With this method of delivery, you have fulfilled your basic requirement (delivering the bad news to your targeted audience) but you have softened the blow somewhat by sandwiching it between positive statements.

Steven Fink’s Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message is published this month by McGraw-Hill Australia.