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Activity 1

Think of a situation in your job in which you need to communicate a negative message.

Develop a written message that states the message clearly.

Describe how you would present the negative message in person

Draw on the four parts of a negative message reviewed in the text: (1) Buffer or cushion, (2) Explanation, (3) Negative News, and (4) Redirect

Activity 2

Select one of the scenarios based on your birth month from the linked document (link-

Scenarios for Crisis Communication.docx

) and develop a crisis communication plan for your selected scenario. See Section 17.3 of your text to learn about the components of an effective crisis plan.

Chapter 17
Negative News and Crisis Communication
You don’t hear things that are bad about your company unless you ask. It is easy to hear good tidings,
but you have to scratch to get the bad news.
Thomas J. Watson Sr.
One day, today, is worth two tomorrows.
Getting Started
Communication is constant, but is it always effective? In times of confusion or crisis,
clear and concise communication takes on an increased level of importance. When an
emergency arises, rumors can spin out of control, emotions can run high, feelings can be
hurt, and in some cases lives can tragically be lost. In this chapter we will examine
several scenarios in which negative news is delivered or received, and examine ways to
improve communication. We will conclude with a discussion of a formal crisis
communication plan. Whether you anticipate the necessity of being the bearer of
unpleasant or bad news, or a sudden and unexpected crisis occurs, your thoughtful
preparation can make all the difference.
17.1 Delivering a Negative News Message
1. List and discuss seven goals of a negative news message.
2. Write an effective negative news message.
The negative news message delivers news that the audience does not want to hear, read,
or receive. Delivering negative news is never easy. Whether you are informing someone
they are being laid off or providing constructive criticism on their job performance, how
you choose to deliver the message can influence its response. [1] Some people prefer their
bad news to be direct and concise. Others may prefer a less direct approach. Regardless
whether you determine a direct or indirect approach is warranted, your job is to deliver
news that you anticipate will be unwelcome, unwanted, and possibly dismissed.
In this section we will examine several scenarios that can be communicated internally
(within the organization) and externally (outside the organization), but recognize that
the lines can be blurred as communication flows outside and through an organization or
business. Internal and external communication environments often have a degree of
overlap. The rumor of anticipated layoffs may surface in the local media, and you may
be called upon to address the concern within the organization. In a similar way, a
product that has failed internal quality control tests will require several more tests and
improvements before it is ready for market, but if that information leaves the
organization, it can hurt the business reputation, prospects for future contracts, and the
company’s ability to secure financing.
Communication is constantly present, and our ability to manage, clarify, and guide
understanding is key to addressing challenges while maintaining trust and integrity with
employees, stakeholders, and the public.
There are seven goals to keep in mind when delivering negative news, in person or in
written form:
1. Be clear and concise in order not to require additional clarification.
2. Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
3. Maintain trust and respect for the business or organization and for the receiver.
4. Avoid legal liability or erroneous admission of guilt or culpability.
5. Maintain the relationship, even if a formal association is being terminated.
6. Reduce the anxiety associated with the negative news to increase comprehension.
7. Achieve the designated business outcome.
Let’s examine our first scenario:
You are a supervisor and have been given the task of discussing repeated tardiness with
an employee, Chris. Chris has frequently been late for work, and the problem has grown
worse over the last two weeks. The tardiness is impairing not only Chris’s performance,
but also that of the entire work team. Your manager has instructed you to put an end to
it. The desired result is for Chris to stop his tardiness behavior and improve his
You can
1. stop by Chris’s cubicle and simply say, “Get to work on time or you are out”;
2. invite Chris out to a nice lunch and let him have it;
3. write Chris a stern e-mail;
4. ask Chris to come to your office and discuss the behavior with him in private.
While there are many other ways you could choose to address the situation, let’s
examine each of these four alternatives in light of the goals to keep in mind when
presenting negative news.
First, you could approach Chris in his workspace and speak to him directly. Advantages
include the ability to get right to the point right away. Disadvantages include the strain
on the supervisor-employee relationship as a result of the public display of criticism, the
possibility that Chris may not understand you, the lack of a formal discussion you can
document, and the risk that your actions may not bring about the desired results.
The goals include the desire to be clear and concise in order not to require additional
clarification. This possible response does not provide the opportunity for discussion,
feedback, or confirmation that Chris has clearly understood your concern. It fails to
address the performance concern, and limits the correction to the tardiness. It fails to
demonstrate respect for all parties. The lack of tact apparent in the approach may reflect
negatively on you as the supervisor, not only with Chris but with your manager as well.
When you need to speak to an employee about a personnel concern, it is always best to
do it in private. Give thought and concern to the conversation before it occurs, and make
a list of points to cover with specific information, including grievances. Like any other
speech, you may need to rehearse, particularly if this type of meeting is new to you.
When it comes time to have the discussion, issue the warning, back it up in writing with
documentation, and don’t give the impression that you might change your decision.
Whether the issue at hand is a simple caution about tardiness or a more serious
conversation, you need to be fair and respectful, even if the other person has been less
than professional. Let’s examine the next alternative.
Let’s say you invite Chris to lunch at a nice restaurant. There is linen on the table,
silverware is present for more than the main course, and the water glasses have stems.
The environment says “good job” in its uniqueness, presentation, and luxury. Your word
will contradict this nonverbal message. The juxtaposition between the environment and
the verbal message will cause tension and confusion, which will probably be an obstacle
to the receiver’s ability to listen. If Chris doesn’t understand the message, and the
message requires clarification, your approach has failed. The contrast between the
restaurant setting and the negative message does not promote understanding and
acceptance of the bad news or correction. Furthermore, it does not build trust in the
relationship, as the restaurant invitation might be interpreted as a “trap” or a betrayal.
Let’s examine yet another approach.
You’ve written Chris a stern e-mail. You’ve included a list of all the recent dates when he
was late and made several statements about the quality of his work. You’ve indicated he
needs to improve, and stop being late, or else. But was your e-mail harassment? Could it
be considered beyond the scope of supervision and interpreted as mean or cruel? And
do you even know if Chris has received it? If there was no reply, do you know whether it
achieved its desired business outcome? A written message may certainly be part of the
desired approach, but how it is presented and delivered is as important as what it says.
Let’s examine our fourth approach to this scenario.
You ask Chris to join you in a private conversation. You start the conversation with an
expression of concern and an open-ended question: “Chris, I’ve been concerned about
your work lately. Is everything all right?” As Chris answers, you may demonstrate that
you are listening by nodding your head, and possibly taking notes. You may learn that
Chris has been having problems sleeping, or that his living situation has changed. Or
Chris may decline to share any issues, deny that anything is wrong, and ask why you are
concerned. You may then state that you’ve observed the chronic tardiness, and name
one or more specific mistakes you have found in Chris’s work, ending with a reiteration
that you are concerned. This statement of concern may elicit more responses and open
the conversation up into a dialogue where you come to understand the situation, Chris
sees your concern, and the relationship is preserved. Alternatively, in case the
conversation does not go well, you will still keep a positive attitude even as you
document the meeting and give Chris a verbal warning.
Regardless of how well or poorly the conversation goes, if Chris tells other employees
about it, they will take note of how you handled the situation, and it will contribute to
their perception of you. It guides their expectations of how you operate and how to
communicate with you, as this interaction is not only about you and Chris. You
represent the company and its reputation, and your professional display of concern as
you try to learn more sends a positive message. While the private, respectful meeting
may not be the perfect solution, it is preferable to the other approaches we have
One additional point to consider as you document this interaction is the need to present
the warning in writing. You may elect to prepare a memo that outlines the information
concerning Chris’s performance and tardiness and have it ready should you want to
present it. If the session goes well, and you have the discretion to make a judgment call,
you may elect to give him another week to resolve the issue. Even if it goes well, you may
want to present the memo, as it documents the interaction and serves as evidence of due
process should Chris’s behavior fail to change, eventually resulting in the need for
This combined approach of a verbal and written message is increasingly the norm in
business communication. In the next two sections, we’ll compare and contrast
approaches, verbal and written, and outline several best practices in terms of approach.
But first, we’ll outline the four main parts of a negative news message:
1. Buffer or cushion
2. Explanation
3. Negative news
4. Redirect
The first part of a negative news message, verbal or written, involves neutral or positive
information. This sets the tone and often serves as a buffer or cushion for the
information to come. Next, an explanation discusses why there is an issue in the first
place. This may be relatively simple, quite complex, or uncomfortable. In a journal
article titled “Further Conceptualization of Explanations in Negative News
Messages,” [2] Mohan Limaye makes the clear case that not only is an explanation a
necessary part of any negative news message, it is an ethical and moral requirement.
While an explanation is important, never admit or imply responsibility without written
authorization from your company cleared by legal counsel. The third part of the negative
news message involves the bad news itself, and the emphasis here is on clarity and
accuracy. Finally, the redirect may refocus attention on a solution strategy, an
alternative, or the subsequent actions that will take place. Table 17.1 “Negative News
Message Sample Script” provides an example that might apply in an external
communication situation.
Table 17.1 Negative News Message Sample Script
Parts of the
Negative News
Buffer or Cushion
Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our product.
We are writing to let you know that this product has been unexpectedly popular, with
over 10,000 requests on the day you placed your order.
Negative News
This unexpected increase in demand has resulted in a temporary out-of-stock/backorder
situation. We will fulfill your order, received at 11:59 p.m. on 09/09/2009, in the order it
was received.
We anticipate that your product will ship next Monday. While you wait, we encourage
you to consider using the enclosed $5 off coupon toward the purchase of any product in
our catalog. We appreciate your business and want you to know that our highest priority
is your satisfaction.
In Table 17.1 “Negative News Message Sample Script”, the neutral or positive news
comes first and introduces the customer to the overall topic. The explanation provides
an indication of the purpose of the communication, while the negative message directly
addresses how it affects the customer. The redirect discusses specific actions to take
place. In this case, it also includes a solution strategy enhanced with a soft sell message,
a subtle, low-pressure method of selling, cross-selling, or advertising a product or
service. Whether you are delivering negative news in person or in writing, the four main
parts of a negative message can help you meet all seven goals.
Before we move to the verbal and written delivery of the negative news message, we
need to offer a word of counsel. You want to avoid legal problems when communicating
bad news. You cannot always predict how others are going to respond, but you can
prepare for and deliver your response in ways that lower the risk of litigation in four
1. Avoid abusive language or behavior.
2. Avoid contradictions and absolutes.
3. Avoid confusion or misinterpretation.
4. Maintain respect and privacy.
Sarcasm, profanity, shouting, or abusive or derogatory language is an obstacle to clear
communication. Furthermore, such language can be interpreted as defamatory, or
harming the reputation of the person, possibly having a negative impact on their future
earnings. In written form, it is called libel. If you say it out loud, it is called slander.
While slander may be harder to prove, no defamatory remarks should be part of your
negative news message. Cell phones increasingly serve to record conversations, and you
simply never know if your words will come back to you in short order. Represent
yourself, the business, and the receiver of your message with professionalism and avoid
abusive or defamatory language.
You also want to avoid contradictions, as they only serve to invite debate. Make sure
your information is consistent and in agreement with the general information in the
conversation. If one part of the information stands out as a contradiction, its importance
will be magnified in the context and distract from your main message. Don’t provide
more information that is necessary. Polarizing, absolute terms like “always” and “never”
are often part of sweeping generalizations that are open to debate. Instead of saying,
“You are always late,” choose to say, “You were late sixteen times in May.” To avoid
confusion or misinterpretation, be precise and specific.
Always maintain respect and privacy. Making a negative statement about an employee
in front of a group of coworkers can be considered ridicule or harm, and in the coming
cases may be actionable and involve legal ramifications. In addition to the legal
responsibility, you have the overall goal of demonstrating professionalism as you
represent yourself and your company in maintaining the relationship with the employee,
even if the end goal is termination. Employees have retaliated against their
organizations in many ways, from discouraging remarks to vandalism and computer
viruses. Your goal is to avoid such behavior, not out of fear, but out of professionalism
and respect for yourself and your organization. Open lines of communication present in
a relationship can help reduce the risk of relational deterioration or animosity. The
sidebar below provides a checklist for delivering a negative message.
Negative Message Checklist
1. Clear goal in mind
2. Clear instructions from supervisor (legal counsel)
3. Clear understanding of message
4. Clear understanding of audience/reader
5. Clear understanding of procedure and protocol
6. Clear, neutral opening
7. Clear explanation without admission of guilt or culpability
8. Clear statement of impact or negative news
9. Clear redirect with no reminders of negative news
10. Clear results with acceptance or action on negative news
Presenting Negative News in Person
Most of us dislike conflict. It may be tempting to avoid face-to-face interaction for fear
of confrontation, but delivering negative news in person can be quite effective, even
necessary, in many business situations. When considering a one-on-one meeting or a
large, formal meeting, consider the preparation and implementation of the discussion.
The first step involves a clear goal. Stephen Covey (1989) recommends beginning with
the end in mind. [3] Do you want your negative news to inform, or to bring about change,
and if so what kind of change and to what degree? A clear conceptualization of the goal
allows you to anticipate the possible responses, to plan ahead, and to get your emotional
“house” in order.
Your emotional response to the news and the audience, whether it is one person or the
whole company, will set the tone for the entire interaction. You may feel frustrated,
angry, or hurt, but the display of these emotions is often more likely to make the
problem worse than to help solve it. Emotions can be contagious, and people will
respond to the emotional tone of the speaker.
If your response involves only one other person, a private, personal meeting is the best
option, but it may not be available. Increasingly people work and contribute to projects
from a distance, via the Internet, and may only know each other via e-mail, phone, or
videophone/videoconferencing services. A personal meeting may be impractical or
impossible. How then does one deliver negative news in person? By the best option
available to both parties. Written feedback may be an option via e-mail, but it takes time
to prepare, send, receive, process, and respond—and the written word has its
disadvantages. Miscommunication and misinterpretation can easily occur, with little
opportunity for constructive feedback to check meanings and clarify perceptions.
The telephone call allows both parties to hear each other’s voices, including the words,
the inflection, the disfluencies, and the emotional elements of conversation. It is
immediate in that the possibility of overlap is present meaning not only is proximity in
terms of voice as close as possible, but both parties may experience overlaps as they take
turns and communicate. Telephone calls allow for quick feedback and clarification
questions, and allow both parties an opportunity to recycle and revisit topics for
elaboration or a better understanding. They also can cover long distances with
reasonable clarity. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) allows you to do the same with
relatively little cost.
While there are distinct advantages, the telephone lacks part of the nonverbal spectrum
available to speakers in a live setting. On the telephone, proximity is a function of
response time rather than physical space and the degree to which one person is near
another. Time is also synchronous, though the telephone crosses time zones and
changes the context as one party may have just arrived at work while the other party is
leaving for lunch. Body language gets lost in the exchange as well, although many of us
continue to make hand gestures on the phone, even when our conversational partners
cannot see us. Paralanguage, or the sounds we hear that are not verbal, including pitch,
tone, rate, rhythm, pace, articulation, and pronunciation are all available to the listener.
As we can see, the telephone call allows for a richer communication experience than
written communication, but cannot convey as much information as would be available
in person. Just as a telephone interview may be used for screening purposes while a live
interview is reserved for the final candidates, the live setting is often considered the best
option for delivering negative news.
Live and in person may be the best option for direct communication with immediate
feedback. In a live setting time is constant. The participants may schedule a breakfast
meeting, for example, mirroring schedules and rhythms. Live, face-to-face
communication comes in many forms. The casual exchange in the hallway, the
conversation over coffee, and the formal performance review meeting all have
interpersonal communication in common.
If you need to share the message with a larger audience, you may need to speak to a
group, or you might even have to make a public presentation or speech. If it needs a
feedback loop, we often call it a press conference, as the speech is followed by a question
and answer session. From meeting in the hallway to live, onstage, under camera lights
and ready for questions, the personal delivery of negative news can be a challenging
Presenting Negative News in Writing
Writing can be intrapersonal, between two people, group communication, public
communication, or even mass communication. One distinct advantage of presenting
negative news in writing is the planning and preparation that goes into the message,
making the initial communication more predictable. When a message is delivered orally
in an interpersonal setting, we may interrupt each other, we sometimes hear what we
want to, and it often takes negotiation and listening skills to grasp meaning. While a
written message, like all messages, is open to interpretation, the range of possibilities is
narrowed and presented within the frame and format designed by the source or author.
The written message involves verbal factors like language and word choice, but it can
also involve nonverbal factors like timing and presentation. Do you communicate the
message on letterhead, do you choose the channel of e-mail over a hard copy letter, or
do you compose your written message in your best penmanship? Each choice
communicates meaning, and the choice of how you present your written message
influences its reception, interpretation, and the degree to which it is understood. In this
section we consider the written message that delivers negative news. Let’s consider
several scenarios:
1. A community disaster such as illness (e.g., a swine flu epidemic), earthquake,
wildfire, plane crash, or a terrorism incident
2. An on-the-job accident with injuries or even death
3. A product defect resulting in injuries, illness, or even death to consumers
4. An unsuccessful product test (e.g., a new software system that isn’t going to be
ready for launch as planned)
5. A company merger that may result in reductions in force or layoffs
In business communication we often categorize our communication as internal or
external. Internal communication is the sharing and understanding of meaning between
individuals, departments, or representatives of the same
business. External communication is the sharing and understanding of meaning
between individuals, departments, or representatives of the business and parties outside
the organization. Across the five scenarios we’ll consider each of these categories in turn.
The confirmation of swine flu (H1N1) may first occur with a laboratory report (itself a
written document), but it is normally preceded by conversations between health care
professionals concerned over the symptoms exhibited by patients, including a high
fever, a cough, sore throat, and a headache. According to Sally Redman, a registered
nurse at Student Health Services at Washington State University–Pullman, over two
thousand students (of nineteen thousand total student population) presented symptoms
on or around August 21, 2009. [4]
Communication will predictably occur among students, health care professionals, and
the community, but parents at a distance will want to know not only the status of their
child, but also of the university. A written message that necessarily contains negative
news may be written in the form of a press release, for example, noting important
information like the number of students affected, the capacity of the health care system
to respond, the experience to date, and whom to contact for further details and updates.
This message will be read over and over as parents, reporters, and people across the
country want to learn more about the situation. Like all business communication, it
needs to be clear and concise.
Our next scenario offers a learning opportunity as well. An on-the-job accident affects
employees and the company, and like our previous example, there will be considerable
interest. There may be interpersonal communication between company representatives
and the individual’s family, but the company will want to communicate a clear record of
the occurrence with an assurance, or statement that the contributing factors that gave
rise to the situation has been corrected or were beyond the control of the company and
its representatives.
In addition to a statement of record, and an assurance, the company will certainly want
to avoid the implication or indication of guilt or culpability. In the case of a product
defect resulting in injuries, illness, or even death to consumers, this will be a relevant
point of consideration. Perhaps a voluntary recall will be ordered, proactively addressing
the risk before an accident occurs. It may also be the case that the recall order is issued
by a government agency. Again, a written statement delivering negative news, in this
case the recall of a product that presents a risk, must be written with care and
consultation of legal counsel.
If your company is publicly traded, the premature announcement of a software program
full of bugs, or programming errors that result in less than perfect performance, can
send the company’s stock price plummeting. How you release this information within
the organization will influence how it is received. If your written internal memo briefly
states that the software program development process has been extended to incorporate
additional improvements, the emphasis shifts from the negative to the positive. While
the negative news, the delay of release, remains, the focus on the benefits of the
additional time can influence employees’ views, and can make a difference in how the
message is received outside the organization.
The awareness of a merger, and the possibility of a reduction in force or layoffs, will be
discussed along the grapevine at work, and will give rise to tension and anticipation of
negative news. You could simply write a short memo “To All Employees,” not include
any contact information, and have an assistant walk around and place copies on
everyone’s chair or desk during the lunch hour. But let’s look at the message this would
send to employees. The written communication includes nonverbal aspects like timing
and presentation as well as verbal aspects like language and word choice. The timing
itself suggests avoidance of conflict, and a reluctance to address the issue with
transparency. The presentation of a memo in hard copy form on your chair from an
unidentified company representative will certainly cause confusion, may be mistaken for
a prank, and could cause considerable stress. It will contribute to increased tensions
rather than solidarity, and if trust is the foundation for all effective communication, it
violates this principle.
Negative news may not be easy to deliver, but it is necessary at times and should be
done with clarity and brevity. All parties should be clearly identified. The negative news
itself should be clear and concise. The presentation should be direct, with authority and
credibility. Communication occurs between people, and all humans experience concern,
fear, and trepidation of the unknown. The negative news message, while it may be
unwelcome, can bring light to an issue. As we mentioned at the beginning of the chapter,
some people prefer their bad news to be direct and concise, while others prefer a less
direct approach. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each approach. Table 17.2 “Direct and
Indirect Delivery” contrasts the elements of the two approaches.
Table 17.2 Direct and Indirect Delivery
Direct Delivery
Direct Example
Indirect Delivery
Indirect Example
Thank you for your request for
Negative news
message as
Your request for leave has been Negative news
We regret to inform you that
your request has been denied.
Please contact your supervisor
if you need more information.
Please contact your supervisor
if you need more information.
The direct approach places the negative news at the beginning of the message, while the
indirect approach packages the negative news between a positive introduction,
sometimes called a “buffer” or cushion, and a conclusion. Your negative message may
include the rationale or reasons for the decision.
The direct approach is often associated with a message where the audience values
brevity and the message needs to be concise. A positive introduction often introduces
the topic but not the outcome. An effective negative news statement clearly states the
message while limiting the possibility of misinterpretation. An effective closing
statement may provide reasons, reference a policy, or indicate a procedure to follow for
more information.
[1] Bovee, C., & Thill, J. (2010). Business communication essentials: A skills-based approach to vital business
English (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
[2] Limaye, Mohan R. (1997, June 1). Further conceptualization of explanation in negative messages. Business
Communication Quarterly, 60(2), 38–50.
[3] Covey, S. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
[4] Yardley, William. (2009, September 6). 2,000 Washington state students report signs of swine flu. New York
Times. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/health/06flu.html?_r=1
17.2 Eliciting Negative News
1. Understand the importance of feedback, even if it is negative.
2. Describe and demonstrate the effective use of open- and closed-ended questions.
How do you know when you are doing a good job? How do you know when, where, and
how you could do a better job? What makes the difference between business or
organization that is stagnant and one that is dynamic? Often the response to all these
questions involves one key, but often overlooked, company resource:
feedback. Feedback is the verbal and/or nonverbal response to a message, and that
message may involve a company product or service.
Employee surveys, for example, may be completed online, in written form, in small
focus groups, and can involve both oral and written communication. In the same way,
customer satisfaction surveys may involve similar options and both provide a valuable
opportunity to take a critical look at what we are doing, how it is perceived, and what
areas we can identify for improvement. They often measure opinions, satisfaction,
attitude, brand affiliation, preference, and engagement of customers and employees. In
this section we will consider negative news as a valuable tool in self, team, company,
product, and service improvement.
Across the years there have been extensive studies on how to improve businesses and
companies, from Total Quality Improvement to the Six Sigma approach to excellence.
Regardless of the theory, approach, or label, they all rest on a foundation of effective
communication. One way that communication is often described
involves customer relationship management, [1] or the relationship between the
organization (sometimes represented by the product or service itself) and the customer.
This leads us to our first point: who is the customer? You might be tempted to say the
end-user, the purchaser, or the decision-maker, but customers are often categorized as
internal and external. Employees themselves represent internal customers, and their
relationship with the business, product, or service has value to the organization.
External customers may include the end-user, but can also include vendors and related
businesses that are part of the supply chain. This expanded global view of
communication and customer service relationships will guide our discussion as we
explore ways to effectively elicit negative news, critical feedback, and praise for a job
well done.
Positive news is part of feedback, and indeed the difference between positive and
negative news often lies more in the interpretation of information than the information
itself. For example, if a software product that your company has been testing for some
time, scheduled for a release date in the near future, has failed several tests, the
tendency to view the news as negative is understood. The fact that the problems and
issues were identified prior to release, however, provides an opportunity to correct them
before their impact is magnified by negative news in the press, customer rejection of an
inferior product, and a diminished view of your brand, all of which could ultimately
damage customer loyalty and even your stock value. The chain reaction doesn’t stop
there; these effects could in turn limit your ability to get additional financing as an
organization, the perceived risk could elevate interest rates on your company debts, and
this could reduce budgets across the organization, limiting the very research and
development budget that gives rise to the new, innovative, or breakout products that will
gain market share.
Viewed in this light, it could be a very positive development that the faults in the
software were detected before release. In addition, by learning to view information in a
dispassionate way, noting that there is more than one way to interpret much of what we
gather as data, you as a business professional can enhance your ability to see new
approaches to products or services.
Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996), [2] states that
communities operate on a set of beliefs. These beliefs form the foundation of the
community, business, and organization. Employees and customers alike become
socialized, learning the values, meaning, behaviors, cultural customs, expectations for
excellence, and brand associations through interaction with the community. In business,
we can clearly see the example of new employees becoming socialized into the company
culture; they are training, learning about their jobs, and getting to know their
We can also see how a customer interacts with a product or service, and comes to
associate feelings, ideas, and expectations with a brand or company. This foundation or
set of actualized beliefs becomes the norm or the status quo, and can become static or
fixed. If a certain process is successful and an individual or company is rewarded, the
process is often repeated. If a customer buys a certain product that works as they
anticipate it will, they are more likely to make a similar purchase decision in the future.
Kuhn discusses research and the scientific method as a process that can affirm the
status quo, but can also produce an anomaly, or something that doesn’t fit, challenges
the existing norm, or stands apart from the anticipated results. [3] This anomaly can
challenge the status quo, and may not be greeted with open arms. Instead, it may be
ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Kuhn
(1996) [4] notes, this outlying information that challenges the norm is precisely the
necessary ingredient for a paradigm shift, or a change in overall view. The view itself can
be as simple as the new awareness that a product has more uses than originally
anticipated, or as significant as a new awareness of the brand and the company focus.
Is there a better way to produce a product? Is there a new feature that customers want?
You’ll never know if you don’t ask, and you’ll never improve or change if you don’t listen
to the feedback.
One story that articulates this power of the anomaly, of unanticipated information that
results in a change in view, involves a common business product. A research chemist for
the 3M Company, Spencer Silver, was used to trial and error as he pursued his goal of a
new superglue. [5] By mixing simple organic compounds in unusual ratios, he tried to
create this superstrong glue, but one result in particular was a spectacular failure. This
particular result, a polymer, would stick to many surfaces, but it was also easy to
remove, leaving no trace of itself. This odd substance was considered useless until
Arthur Fry, a fellow 3M scientist, found a new use for it: removable paper notes that
could be used to mark pages in his hymnal when he sang in his church choir. Minor
modifications resulted in sample note pads that were passed around at 3M, and soon a
new form of written communication and information organization was created: the
now-famous Post-it brand note. [6] Silver and Fry could have dismissed the negative
result as a failure to reach the established goal of inventing a super glue, but by
undergoing a paradigm shift, they revolutionized business communication. Learning to
be open to information that challenges your views is a key business skill.
This now brings us to the question of how we elicit negative news, critical feedback, and
assessment information. How do you learn more about the people around you? You
watch, listen, and ask questions. Asking questions while watching, listening, and
learning is the foundation of eliciting feedback. We can ask questions in interpersonal
interviews, in small groups, and even large groups in person. We can use technology to
help gather and process information, categorizing and classifying it. We can also create
surveys with questions designed to elicit specific types of information.
Academic research often uses the terms “qualitative” and “quantitative” to categorize
two types of information gathering. Qualitative research involves interactions, which by
their very nature are subject to interpretation and, as a result, are less reliable and
statistically valid. Their strength is in the raw data, the proximity to the source, and the
possibility of unexpected results. The weakness in the results is often the inability to
replicate the results the same way again. An example may be a focus group, where
participants try a new beverage and report their experience in words and nonverbal
expressions. By recording the group, we can replay and study their response to the new
drink, and learn that many of the participants perceive it to be sour from their facial
gestures. The written responses may not indicate this response to the same degree, and
the recorded responses may portray a different story. If you replicate the focus group
with new participants, you may very well have a different outcome.
Over time, patterns may emerge that produce reliable results, and indeed double-blind
studies for many pharmaceuticals use a similar approach, but the number of
participants has to be significantly increased while theconfounding factors, or factors
that can alter the results, must be anticipated and controlled. All of this involves a cost,
and not every product, service, or study needs this type of investigation.
Quantitative research involves investigation and analysis of data and relationships
between data that can be represented by numbers. The categorization and classification
from the moment the investigation means that some aspects of the raw data will be
necessarily lost in the process, but the information that remains will have a reliability
and validity that compensates for this loss. Indeed, quantitative measures and
representations of data are increasingly the norm in business communication, and are
used to make decisions at all levels.
If your company produces automobiles, you may want qualitative information from
potential consumers on their impression of the placement of the cupholders, but you
will probably prefer quantitative information when it comes to engineering and safety.
As you stress-test the steel in crash tests, assessing the force of the impact, the
displacement of parts of the car as the crumple zones deform to absorb the energy, and
the relative location of the crash-test dummy driver to the crush zone, you will measure
it in terms of numbers. Each time your repeat the test, you should see similar results. If
you don’t, you may need to test the welds and examine the production process to
determine why there is an inconsistency. You may even need to test the steel itself to see
if it is a materials issue, rather than a process and production problem. All this
information would be measured in terms of numbers and symbols, representing
velocity, tensile strength, and related factors.
Another factor in gathering feedback is confidentiality. Before you consider how to ask
questions, you may want to consider to what degree you want identifying information in
the process. If you are designing a campaign where employees submit suggestions to
save the company money, increase production, or improve quality, and want to offer a
financial incentive for ideas that are adopted, you will need to be able to identify the
contributing employee for the reward. On the other hand, if you want a feedback system
for employees to report coworkers who are under the influence or have substance abuse
problems on the job, threatening the safety of all, then you would want an anonymous 1800 number to give out, and to encourage its use by assuring employees that it carries
no identifying markers.
Anonymous surveys can elicit information that would not be revealed otherwise, but
they can also be a place for employees to vent, exaggerate, or invent responses. The
validity is an issue, but the opportunity for insight may outweigh the risks. You can also
provide an optional opportunity for the employee or customer to self-identify by
providing a place where they could indicate contact information. A customer that
completes a postpurchase survey may be offered a coupon if they register, and that
contact information may be useful for follow-up contacts. Some customers will prefer,
however, to write a direct complaint without identifying themselves. When designing a
survey, brochure, or procedure to elicit feedback, you need to consider identification
and anonymity.
In order to gather information, we often ask questions. For this application there are
two types of questions: open and closed. [7] Open-ended questions allow for
interpretation and a range of responses in the respondent’s own words. Closedended questions limit the responses to a preselected range of options or choices. Your
choice of open or closed questions depends on what type of information you plan to
Open-ended questions may sound like the following:
1. What do you like about the product?
2. How was the service today?
3. How does the product make you feel?
4. What does our brand mean to you?
5. Why did you choose our product?
In each case, the question can be answered many ways, depending on the word choice of
the respondent. The value is placed on the personal response and the range of data
gathered may well be quite diverse, presenting challenge to categorize and group. Openended questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no response.
Closed-ended questions, however, can be answered with a yes/no response. Here are
five examples of closed-ended questions:
1. Have you purchased our product previously?
___ Yes
___ No
2. Why did you choose our product?
Price/low cost
Previous experience
How was the service today?
Poor Below average Neutral Good Excellent
What do you like about the product? (Please indicate in rank order.)
___ Low cost
___ Quality
___ Reputation
___ Features
___ Low maintenance
Please indicate the year you were born. _________
The first closed-ended question is simply a closed question with its yes/no response
options, but it is also an example of a categorical question.Categorical questions limit
the responses to two categories. For example, you may ask a customer to indicate their
sex in the response survey, allowing them to choose from two categories: male or
female. Multiple choice questions allow for specific choices and limit the range of
options. Likert Scale questions allow for the conversion of feelings, attitudes, and
perceptions into numbers in a range. Ordinal questions request the respondent to rank
order specific options. Numerical questionsrequest a specific number, often a birth date
or a serial number, that itself carries meaning. For example, age may be correlated to
disposable income, and while the respondent may not be willing to respond to a direct
question about their income level, they may be willing to indicate their year of birth.
To summarize the pros and cons of the two basic question types: open-ended questions
are best when you want all possible responses in the respondent’s own words. Closedended questions limit the responses to a few choices, and they can be categorized,
placed in order, assess degrees of attitudes and feelings, and request specific
information. [8]
[1] Bauer, J. E., Duffy, G. L., & Westcott, R. T. (2006). The quality improvement handbook. New York, NY: ASQ
Quality Press.
[2] Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
[3] Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
[4] Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
[5] Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
[6] 3M Company. (2009). A NOTE-able achievement. Retrieved
[7] Fink, A. (1995). How to ask survey questions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
[8] Fink, A. (1995). How to ask survey questions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
17.3 Crisis Communication Plan
1. Understand how to prepare a crisis communication plan.
A rumor that the CEO is ill pulls down the stock price. A plant explosion kills several
workers and requires evacuating residents on several surrounding city blocks. Risk
management seeks to address these many risks, including prevention as well as liability,
but emergency and crisis situations happen nevertheless. In addition, people make
errors in judgment that can damage the public perception of a company. The
mainstream media does not lack stories involving infidelity, addiction, or abuse that
require a clear a response from a company’s standpoint. In this chapter we address the
basics of a crisis communication plan.
Focus on key types of information during an emergency: [1]
What is happening?
Is anyone in danger?
How big is the problem?
Who reported the problem?
Where is the problem?
Has a response started?
What resources are on-scene?
Who is responding so far?
Is everyone’s location known?
You will be receiving information from the moment you know a crisis has occurred, but
without a framework or communication plan to guide you, valuable information may be
ignored or lost. These questions help you quickly focus on the basics of “who, what, and
where” in the crisis situation.
Developing Your Crisis Communication Plan
A crisis communication plan is the prepared scenario document that organizes information into
responsibilities and lines of communication prior to an event. With a plan in place, if an emergency arises,
each person knows his or her role and responsibilities from a common reference document. Overall
effectiveness can be enhanced with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for an effective and
swift response. The plan should include four elements:
Crisis communication team members with contact information
2. Designated spokesperson
3. Meeting place/location
4. Media plan with procedures
A crisis communication team includes people who can
decide what actions to take,
carry out those actions,
offer expertise or education in the relevant areas.
By designating a spokesperson prior to an actual emergency, your team addresses the
inevitable need for information in a proactive manner. People will want to know what
happened and where to get further details about the crisis. Lack of information breeds
rumors, which can make a bad situation worse. The designated spokesperson should be
knowledgeable about the organization and its values; be comfortable in front of a
microphone, camera, and media lights; and be able to stay calm under pressure.
Part of your communication crisis plan should focus on where you will meet to
coordinate communicate and activities. In case of a fire in your house, you might meet
in the front yard. In an organization, a designated contingency building or office some
distance away from your usual place of business might serve as a central place for
communication in an emergency that requires evacuating your building. Depending on
the size of your organization and the type of facilities where you do business, the
company may develop an emergency plan with exit routes, hazardous materials
procedures, and policies for handling bomb threats, for example. Safety, of course, is the
priority, but in terms of communication, the goal is to eliminate confusion about where
people are and where information is coming from.
Whether or not evacuation is necessary, when a crisis occurs, your designated
spokesperson will gather information and carry out your media plan. He or she will need
to make quick judgments about which information to share, how to phrase it, and
whether certain individuals need to be notified of facts before they become public. The
media and public will want to know information and reliable information is preferable
to speculation. Official responses help clarify the situation for the public, but an
unofficial interview can make the tragedy personal, and attract unwanted attention.
Remind employees to direct all inquiries to the official spokesperson and to never speak
“off the record.”
Enable your spokesperson to have access to the place you indicated as your crisis
contingency location to coordinate communication and activities, and allow that
professional to prepare and respond to inquiries. When crisis communication is handled
in a professional manner, it seeks not to withhold information or mislead, but to
minimize the “spin damage” from the incident by providing necessary facts, even if they
are unpleasant or even tragic.
[1] Mallet, L., Vaught, C., & Brinch, M. (1999). The emergency communication triangle. Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Saftey and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.
17.4 Press Conferences
1. Discuss the purpose of a press conference.
2. Discuss how to prepare and conduct a press conference.
Holding a press conference when you are unprepared can feel like standing in front of a
firing squad, where all the journalists are armed so no one will carry the guilt of the
winning shot. It can make you nervous, scared, and reluctant to speak at all. It can take
your fear of a misquote, or a stumble, or a misstatement replayed across the Internet
thousands of times in the next twenty-four hours and make you wish for a blindfold and
a cigarette, but that won’t help. The way to calm your nerves is to be confident in your
material. This section discusses the press conference, from preparation to execution
(pun intended).
A press conference is a presentation of information to the media. It normally involves a
written statement that is read exactly as written and is followed by questions and
answers. The press conference normally requires a seasoned representative of the
company or business with established credibility and integrity. It also requires a sense of
calm in the confidence that you know your material, know how to tactfully say you don’t
know or don’t wish to comment, and a sense of humor to handle the “gotcha” questions.
Press conferences can be held for positive news like the announcement of a new hospital
wing that will increase the health care services available to the community. It can also be
held to clarify information regarding the CEO’s trip to Chile with an alleged mistress,
the recent law enforcement sting operation on the illegal sale of controlled substances
from the hospital, or to announce the layoff of employees as part of a reduction in force.
Positive or negative, your role as a speaker at a press conference is to deliver the
prepared message and to represent the business or organization in a professional
manner. You understand that there may be moments of tension, but you also know you
have a choice in how to respond. First we’ll examine preparation, then discuss the actual
press conference.
You should have a good reason for holding a press conference. Wasting the media’s time
on a frivolous issue will only set you up for challenges later on. You should also have a
brief prepared statement that you will read and restate if necessary. Today’s press
conference messages are often drafted by someone in public relations or media, and
reviewed by legal counsel when warranted. If the task falls to you, keep it short and
simple, addressing the following:
As a follow-up to why the press conference needs to occur in the first place, you need to
consider the location. If it is a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the choice is obvious. If the
announcement is less than positive, and you’ve been instructed by your supervisors or
counsel to not offer additional remarks, you’ll want a podium strategically located next
to a stage exit. Your press release or invitation to the media will contain the time, date,
and location of the press conference, and may contain a title or subject line as well as
contact information for follow-up information.
As you prepare your background materials, learning as much as needed for the
announcement, you may also want to consider using a moderator. Perhaps that will be
your role as you introduce senior management to read the prepared statement. A
moderator can serve to influence the process and redirect if questions go off topic or if a
transition is needed. A moderator can also call a formal close the press conference and
thank everyone for attending.
Finally, visual aids are an excellent way to reinforce and communicate your message.
They need to be big, they need to be relevant (not just decorative), and (from a technical
standpoint) they need to work. If they will be projected onto a screen, make sure the
screen is available (not stuck), the laptop has power (as well as battery backup), the
presentation or visual aid is on the laptop, and that the projector can and does project
what you want it to. Don’t forget sound equipment if necessary, and make sure
everything works the day of the presentation.
Holding a Press Conference
Someone should be designated as the greeter for the media. Be ready at least fifteen
minutes before the scheduled time of the event. Provide each member of the media with
a print copy of the actual statement that will be read before or after the event. If there is
an element of surprise, you may want to hold the copies of the statement back until after
the press conference has been concluded, but otherwise distributing them beforehand is
The moderator opens the press conference with a welcome, indicates the purpose of the
press conference and reminds everyone that there will (or will not) be an opportunity for
questions following the press conference. The moderator introduces the spokesperson
who will read the statement and welcomes him or her to the podium. The moderator
may need to assist with sound equipment but otherwise stands back but near the
The speaker will read the statement. If there are to be no questions, the moderator will
retake the podium and indicate that press kits, containing background material, fact
sheets, the news release, sample photos, or related materials will be available; or simply
indicate that copies of the press release are available at the back of the room. If there are
questions, the moderator may still take the podium and outline ground rules for
questions such as: they should pertain to the subject, be brief, and may or may not
include follow-up questions. Members of the media will often ask a question and state
that they have a follow-up question as a way of reserving two turns.
The moderator may indicate which member of the media is to ask a question, and
typically they will stand and address the speaker directly. The speaker can take notes,
but this isn’t common. Instead, they should be aware that every movement is being
recorded and that by maintaining eye contact, they are demonstrating that they are
listening. They may reiterate the statement from the press release or refer to the
background material, but should limit the scope of their response. Your team may have
anticipated several questions and the speaker may have several sound bites ready to
deliver. Visual media will want it visual, audio will want clarity, and print will want
descriptive quotes. Meet the needs of your audience as you deliver your message.
Invariably the “gotcha” question, or the question that attempts to catch the speaker off
guard, will be asked. “We’re not ready to discuss the matter at this time,” “When more
information becomes available we will let you know,” “Our company has no position on
that issue,” or “We’re not prepared to speculate on that issue at this time” are all
common response phrases. Don’t use “I think,” “I believe,” or “I don’t know” comments
as they invite speculation, and refrain from “no comment” if at all possible as it is
increasingly perceived as if the company or representative is “hiding something.”
You want to appear professional, knowledgeable, and credible—not as if you are
sneaking or hiding something. Don’t display a nonverbal gesture or make a face at a
question, as this can also be misinterpreted. Keep your poise and balance at all times,
and if you are the speaker and the question puts you off, establish eye contact with the
moderator. Their role is to step in and they may move to the conclusion.
Never say anything you wouldn’t want the world to hear, as microphones are
increasingly powerful, video captures lips movement, and there will be a communication
professional available to analyze your nonverbal gestures on the evening news. Being
cool, calm, and collected is the best policy whether you are delivering positive or
negative news.
17.5 Additional Resources
“Good Ways to Deliver Bad News” by Curtis Sittenfeld from Fast
“How to Deliver Bad News to a Group” by Kevin Daley, a Harvard Business
“How to Deliver Bad News” from
Development by Design offers an article on how to elicit feedback.http://www.development-bydesign.com/article_Tips.htm
“Top 7 Ways To Elicit Constructive Web site Feedback” by Adam
Visit this Northern Illinois University site for a guide to preparing a generic crisis communication
plan and adapting it to your needs.http://www3.niu.edu/newsplace/crisis.html
To see an actual crisis communication plan, visit this North Carolina State University Web
site. http://www2.ncsu.edu/ncsu/univ_relations/crisis.html
See the Crisis Communication Plan of Meredith College at this
Western Organization of Research Councils presents “How to Hold a Press
Conference.” http://www.npaction.org/resources/WORC/pressconf12.pdf
“How to Hold a Press Conference” by Kori Rodley Irons. Press conferences aren’t just for the rich

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