How to Deliver Bad News and Still Look Good

In every association executive’s life the day will come when you must deliver bad news. Sometimes you have to tell the bad news to your Board; every so often you have to tell your membership; periodically you must tell your superior. But whoever is on the receiving end of the message, the way you deliver the news can determine how the messenger (you) is treated.

An example of “bad news” having to do with money was handled in an exemplary way a few years ago by the National Speakers Association. According to Barbara Nivala, the then Executive Vice President of the organization, ” we wanted to take a long term approach, upgrading the membership and projecting a higher visibility in the meetings industry. To do this, we felt we had to double the membership dues.” No one was happy about that, but the president of the NSA, Tom Winniger, approached the problem by calling the dues increase a “restructuring of dues.”

That was just a small part of his approach. First, Tom gave the entire upgrading process a name; he called it “NSA 2000.” He alerted the membership through the association mailings that he had many plans for “NSA 2000.” He sent out quarterly updates to keep everyone informed and to keep the association moving forward.

Meanwhile, he was working with the NSA staff, past presidents and current leadership to make sure they would buy into his ideas of upgrading the association. He sent “update” notices to his board members, letting them know about progress and problems. He also sought out critics of his ideas and spoke to them individually. He told his own staff that he would personally respond to the negative phone calls and letters, shielding them from irate members.

To insure that the news about the doubling of dues would not hit so hard, Tom saw to it that members received more for their money. He upgraded the newsletter into a classy magazine, making it more than a membership publication. Then he sent it to other industry leaders, creating higher visibility for NSA and its members. He also included taped programs which had previously been sold separately in the monthly mailings.

The result? When “NSA 2000” was presented to the full membership, the doubling of the dues was overshadowed by the benefits. Although individual chapters had a tough time with complaints about the dues, the members did notice an improved image, higher visibility, and more benefits of membership.

The lesson here is that when presenting bad news, always take a long term approach. Trust that your decisions today will have impact for the long term, even if those in power right now may not benefit from it. Every so often you may have to report bad news about something that already happened. The most important part of your approach is to show how you can avoid having the problem again.

If an action has resulted in poor customer service or a financial loss, before you report it, think about what you are going to do so that it will not happen again. When you do have to report the bad news, have a list of options or solutions ready. You may not have all the answers, but the person you are reporting to doesn’t have all the answers either.

If you approach the situation and are up front about it, that will help. If you have to report to a superior, try telling them that you have a situation that is a problem, but you also have some possible solutions. If the person you are talking to understands that you are trying to solve the problem rather than being stuck in it, the meeting will go easier.

If you are successful, you will leave your meeting feeling revitalized because the problem is over and done with, and you have agreed on ways to avoid repeating it in the future.

Larry Wilson, author of One Minute Salesman, believes that most business traumas will turn out to be merely inconveniences or even springboards to something better when seen in perspective. Businesses run in cycles, up and down. When you survive a few cycles, you are more valuable to your organization.

Dale Carnegie said it many years ago, “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” That lemon you just swallowed can be a springboard for creative thinking and new growth.