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Case – “Unpredicted, Yes. Unexpected, No.”

Communicating bad news is hard and it pays to do it well. There are some who argue that you cannot judge a manager or a firm by what they do when times are good, but only by how they manage when times are bad.

Many of the managers that were good at getting flattering profiles in the media are not quite as good at communicating less flattering news to staff, shareholders, and the public. Many now view the media as an adversary. Doubtlessly, many messengers have been shot and excuses have been made, both good and bad, but all to the same effect – namely none.

Managers and firms choose how they react to bad news. This may sound odd, especially because often the news is simply factual. The bad numbers, results, or events have happened and are visible to all. The reaction can be many different things, however, and it is here the choice lies.

Bad news should not come as a surprise. The forecasts that a firm’s plans are based upon should include worst case scenarios and depictions of potential threats. When something bad happens, the bad thing should be at least an outcome that has been considered. If not, then it is a clear sign that forecasting improvements are necessary.

The natural tendency may be to avoid the bad news or shift the blame, but these may not be the wisest choices. It is worth remembering that these events also present opportunities. Bad news can be communicated well.

On the morning of January 17th, 2008, a British Airways Boeing 777 crashed as it came in to land at Heathrow. The event was unexpected. British Airways obviously had expected the plane to land normally. The news, complete with pictures and eyewitness interviews was public within minutes. The airline had to react immediately.

As the story unfolded, the attention could have focused on the safety record of British Airways and speculations about the the new Boeing 777 aircraft. Instead the main story became the skill of the crew at avoiding a catastrophe.

British Airways held a press conference the same day featuring the airplane’s crew. The pilot praised his co-pilot and the rest of the staff and soon the British Prime Minister, the British pilots union and even the pilot’s neighbors had joined in.

There was no way that British airways could hide the wreckage of the aircraft at the end of one of Heathrow’s runways, nor could they prevent pictures of the wreckage going round the globe. What they did manage to do was affect the way those pictures were perceived. Instead of reflecting negatively on them or the airplane’s maker, the pictures became a story of  the crew’s heroism and skill in saving the lives of all aboard.

For more on how to react to bad news, see John Baldoni’s excellent article “Don’t Let Yourself Be Surprised” at Harvard Business Publishing:

http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/baldoni/2008/05/dont_let_yourself_be_surprised.html

Baldoni quotes American football coach Bear Bryant, “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it.”

For more on the plane crash, see these links to the BBC News website

Airliner crash-lands at Heathrow
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/london/7194086.stm

‘Hero’ captain of Heathrow crash drama
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7195582.stm

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