Just Give Me the Bad News, Already

If you’re a crisis communicator, you routinely have bad news to give people who are affected by the latest disaster. In the midst of responding to crisis, your job is to build and/or maintain people’s trust and credibility in you and your organization’s abilities.

Being transparent with bad news – while telling people what you’re doing about it – is tough, but necessary.

Take a lesson learned from any recent disaster: the longer you wait to tell people bad news, the worse that news will be for those affected. From the fate of passengers in missing jetliners over the Pacific to the human risks of chemicals spilled into a drinking water source in America, people can take the bad news up front.

Look at it from a personal perspective. If you had a serious health problem and consulted a doctor, would you want her to sugarcoat it and put you on a course of action that didn’t solve the real issue, or would you want full disclosure (even if it’s bad news) so you could do what you had to do to get well?

I wrote about maxims recently, and here are two to apply when you have to communicate bad news: “maximum disclosure, minimum delay” and “bad news isn’t wine – it doesn’t get better with age.”

In the case of search and rescue missions – there’s sometimes a point, unfortunately, when they have to stop before reaching a successful outcome. I’m most familiar with maritime search and rescue and, generally, those cases are suspended by some agencies when the search area has been saturated, survivability time has lapsed and resources have reached the point that further action will prohibit a safe response to new cases. Telling people why you’re not searching for someone anymore isn’t easy, but if you’re compassionate and transparent with the reasons why – and, what could prompt the search to be re-opened – people can take it. (Worth noting: search and rescue cases in which mass casualties are a possibility should flex the usual rules of how long a case remains active)

If you’re looking for an example of what happens when you take the approach of “minimum disclosure, maximum delay,” West Virginia’s Elk River chemical spill from January of this year is a great place to start. Company names and types of chemical aren’t that important for this discussion – what is most important is how the responsible party communicated (or rather failed to communicate) risk to an affected public.

After the spill, approximately 300,000 customers of a drinking water utility, which had to cease operations because it was downriver, were literally left high and dry after a “do not use” order was issued by the state. This affected some people for more than a week. If you’re building a personal disaster survival kit, FEMA recommends including a gallon of water per person, per day (so, the math makes this crisis reaaalllllly crisis-y).

How did the responsible party communicate risk to all those people (which, by the way, included the mayor of the state capital and the governor)? Well, they didn’t at all, initially. The company waited more than 24 hours to say anything to the public. They low-balled the spill amount, and then changed it to bigger numbers twice in the ensuing weeks. They also neglected to tell anyone, for almost two weeks, about a second chemical risk from the spill.

What were the impacts? One state agency said it best after forcing full disclosure from the responsible party, “Having this revelation so late in the game is completely unacceptable … (h)aving to order (the company) to provide such obvious information is indicative of the continued decline of their credibility.” Was this a case of an organization purposely blocking the flow of information or doing so accidentally, by just being unprepared to conduct crisis and risk communications? We’ll probably never know.

Search and rescue cases and environmental pollution response cases are apples and oranges, but there are similarities in the crosswalk between the two. The risks to human health and safety are paramount for both, and the potential for the lead organization in both circumstances having to communicate bad news to people with high concern is likely.

Can people really take the bad news during crisis?

Sure, but they sometimes need help. Palenchar and Heath wrote, “members of the lay public want to be a part of the risk communication process but often have difficulty understanding risk messages, participating in risk discourse and trusting information sources, and gaining access to decision makers.” Covello wrote, “(i)f in doubt, lean toward sharing more information, not less – or people may think you are hiding something. Identify worst-case estimates as such, and cite ranges of risk estimates when appropriate.”

A positive lesson learned from an oil spill that shut down the Mississippi River from New Orleans almost to the Gulf of Mexico in 2008 was releasing the bad news early, in the form of the worst-case scenario (and releasing that first responders were working from that assumption). The federal on-scene coordinator later wrote, “the Coast Guard assumed a total loss of cargo from the (barge) given the type of accident and damage …. This position helped manage the public’s and press’ expectations of environmental impact.”

Would you rather say, “it’s worse than we thought,” or “it’s not as bad as we initially estimated” when communicating bad news to those affected hours, days or weeks after the initial incident? I know my answer.

Image courtesy Ryan McGuire of Gratisography, used under Creative Commons license. Original image: http://www.gratisography.com, License: http://creativecommons.org/choose/zero/ The image has not been altered.

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