“That’s so 24 seconds ago,” scoffs the tailgating dude in an advertisement for AT&T mobile phones. With all the focus on technology that lets us deliver news instantly, it’s easy to forget that we have the power to control the flow. Sometimes fast and furious is a great approach, but occasionally, slower is better. It’s crucial that we stop and think about it, because people’s perception of news depends on when they receive it.
To be the master of your company’s news, follow this formula: release bad news quickly and good news slowly.
Rip the Band-Aid
I was channel surfing late-night TV a couple of years ago when my eyes snagged on an especially dour-looking David Letterman. Pausing, I heard him deliver a 10-minute confession that involved adultery, sexual relations with his staff and a blackmail attempt. The news was unsavory, to say the least, and it had the potential to tank his career. The next day the media exploded with Letterman’s confession, and it remained a top story for several weeks. Then it was over. Letterman had dealt with the blackmail attempt by delivering all the bad news himself in a single announcement. He’s still on the air, of course.
There are two main reasons to release bad news quickly. First, no matter how terrible the news is, it is perceived as a lone event. Ten semi-bad stories are much more damaging than one really bad story that includes the same 10 details. If you can get all the details of a bad story out in one day, there’s a good chance it will blow over because there will be nothing for the media (or your competition) to follow up with.
The second reason to release bad news quickly is that it creates trust and may limit the wrath you may face, legal and otherwise, from people who will be affected. Sitting on bad news is perceived as devious.
When you’re dealing with internal bad news, such as layoffs, deliver all of it as quickly as possible. Waiting only leaves more time for anxiety to spread among the staff. Let’s say you have come to the conclusion that this year you’ll have to freeze all salaries, offer no bonuses and make a 10 percent cut in personnel.
This will be an extremely unpleasant announcement to make, and your employees will not be happy. Now imagine how they’d feel if you announced one of those decisions every week for three weeks. The staff would be worse than unhappy; they’d be in a panic wondering what disaster was awaiting them at the next meeting.
The same rules apply if you’re delivering bad news to a superior. Spill the entire story at once, and it’s one bad day. Stretch it over days or weeks, and it looks like you don’t know how to do your job.
Savor the good news
The same psychology holds true for good news, only in reverse.
If there’s a way to release positive client feedback slowly, the effect will be greater and the glow will last longer.
When you’re rewarding team members for their performance, stretch it out. Tell them personally, and also e-mail a general announcement to the staff. To compound it, follow up a few days later with a compliment from a client or supervisor referencing the same project. A day or so after that, give them a gift card to Starbucks or another of their favorite venues as a token of your appreciation.
Release bad news quickly and good news slowly. It’s counterintuitive, because we all have a natural tendency to spread good news the minute we hear it and to minimize bad news. If we can learn to do the opposite, we will have more control over the way the people perceive our business.
Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies” (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians.