Delivering bad news can be tough, especially when the people getting the bad news did nothing wrong. That’s been happening a lot recently, as many companies, large and small, have been forced to lay off or furlough great employees just because of COVID-19. Worse, this bad news has often had to be delivered virtually, due to distancing rules.

Psychologists and communications experts say that announcing this kind of bad news is emotionally and mentally troubling and can be overwhelming. This makes it even more challenging to get the message right, because we don’t do well with communication when we’re not in the right mindset. What are some ways to protect both the intent and the delivery of a “bad news” message when the one delivering the message also wants the audience to know they are appreciated? Let’s walk through some of the best practices.

While bad news is best coming from the team leader – and in the case of a large-scale layoff, the CEO – it’s always a good idea to craft a message with help from the communications team. PR managers are trained to consider all aspects of the message in a way that protects the brand, in the moment and going forward. PR pros in this situation should consider the effect the message will have on three distinct stakeholders: the leaders delivering the news, the employees that are affected, and the employees that are not directly affected.

The key through-line for all of these groups, the necessary ingredient, is empathy for all involved. The CEO does not want to deliver the bad news, the people getting it don’t want to hear it, and the people left out now have a whole new set of concerns mingled with a sense of relief.

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For the leader, key concerns include clarity, strength, and connection. Their position should be one of empathy and understanding, but business decisions have to be made, and people need to be clear on the reasons for those business decisions. Just saying “business reasons” or offering another similar cliché is not enough. Valuable people deserve to know, specifically, why these tough calls had to be made. It both humanizes and protects the CEO when a message is clear, specific, and empathetic. The CEO will be held responsible, so when they are seen as taking responsibility, no matter how difficult the news, this will benefit the brand and the person in the long run. 

The furloughed workers need to know how the company is prepared to help them. This consideration goes a long way toward protecting the company brand in the event of a lay-off. Consider two different scenarios, in both cases the business is forced to enact layoffs: 

  • In scenario 1, the company keeps employees on medical benefits and has a system in place to bring at least some of them back on as soon as possible.
  • In scenario 2, the company just cuts them loose to fend for themselves, without any tangible acknowledgment of the value they invested in the company.

It’s not hard to see which scenario would be better for the brand. That’s not to say these are the only scenarios possible. They are extremes to illustrate the point that this is a spectrum that needs to work for both the immediate company needs and long-term brand reputation. Consumers want to support a company that takes care of its people, and people want to work for a brand that sees them as more than just numbers. 

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Finally, bad news should keep in mind people it does not affect directly. Workers who are left will be happy to still have work, but they will also be worried that they will be next. That empty workstation where their friend used to be is a constant reminder and a reason for increased stress. Given that reality, messages should be crafted in a way that considers the mindset and perspective of the people who are not directly impacted. There should be clarity of why they are still there, coupled with a renewed focus on what they bring to the table and how they fit with the current mission. This will help bring the team together through the difficult time.

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder & Chairman of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently owned PR firms in the United States. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth and vision, with the agency earning accolades including being named a Top 50 Global PR Agency by PRovoke Media, a top three NYC PR agency by O'Dwyers, one of Inc. Magazine's Best Workplaces and being awarded multiple American Business Awards, including a Stevie Award for PR Agency of the Year. With over 25 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected public relations executives. Throughout his career he has advised leading and high-growth businesses, organizations, leaders and boards across corporate, technology and consumer industries. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications. He has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly in the media and has authored two editions of his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations," which is an industry best-seller. Torossian's strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, a Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, and a recipient of Crain's New York Most Notable in Marketing & PR. Outside of 5W, Torossian serves as a business advisor to and investor in multiple early stage businesses across the media, B2B and B2C landscape. Torossian is the proud father of two daughters. He is an active member of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of multiple not for profit organizations.