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“Bad News Delivered Badly”

August 31, 2016

18820225526_884e6b752d_zIt’s hard to think of a more difficult task than a police officer knocking on someone’s door to deliver a death notification.

It kind of puts things in perspective when you consider Dropbox’s latest security breach concerns.  The breach back in 2012 may have exposed users’ credentials, and Dropbox issued a note to users last week asking users to update their passwords: “This is purely a preventative measure, and we’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

The Dropbox Help Center note about this (I’m being asked to create a new password on—why, and what should I do?) buries the reason for the message way down the page, and even then feels the need to couch things in positive terms:

“Our security teams are always watching out for new threats to our users. As part of these ongoing efforts, we learned about an old set of Dropbox user credentials (email addresses plus hashed and salted passwords) that we believe were obtained in 2012. Our analysis suggests that the credentials relate to an incident we disclosed around that time.”

In marketing, we are often asked to help craft messages to deliver bad news. Typically the request is for us to put things in a more positive light. That can result in the news you are trying to convey being lost, misinterpreted or evoking such an adverse reaction that you end up doing more damage.

Can you imagine what would happen if marketers were asked to deliver a death notification?

“Hi – did you know that the local funeral home is offering a 20 percent discount this month? By the way …”

I was asked to review a piece of communications recently that was going out to notify users of a service that it was to be discontinued. The main purpose of the news was to ensure users had time to migrate to another service – preferably an alternative service offered by the same vendor. The first draft I saw was so focused on talking up the virtues of the alternative service offered that most customers wouldn’t have realised that the current service they were using was shutting down in a month’s time.

There’s a perfect analogy of this in a 2010 Police and Security News article, under the subhead ‘Bad News Delivered Badly’:

“A police wife from New Jersey traveled two hours in a cruiser with two officers to the hospital where her husband had been taken after being shot. During the entire trip, she was told her husband would be fine. When she arrived at the hospital, she was told he had died at the scene of the shooting. She resented being given a false sense of hope.”

– “Death Notification: The Toughest Job in Law Enforcement”,  Police and Security News, March/April 2010

Instead, the final communication about the service discontinuation ensured the key message – and action required to be considered by the customer – was clearly and sensitively delivered. We were clear on what was happening, when migration needed to take place, and emphasised that customers would be supported through the transition, there would be minimal disruption, and that they had a number of options open to them – the best being to migrate to the vendor’s alternative (and better) service.

There’s good advice we can follow from the law enforcement experience. This from Denny Hayes, who worked for 15 years as a chaplain for the FBI’s critical response team, personally delivering more than 500 death notifications:

“During that time, he developed a code for his ominous duties: Always deliver bad news in person. Always bring a partner (“95 percent of them defer to me to do the actual speaking of the words—nobody wants to experience sad”). Skip the euphemisms—they comfort no one except the person speaking them. Never abandon anyone until they have someone else to hold onto.”

– “What It’s Like to Deliver Bad News for a Living”, by Carrie Seim, The Atlantic, 4 June 2014

Taken from the same article in The Atlantic above, this really sums it up best:

“You can’t make it better,” said Dr. Nancy Davis, former chief of counseling services for the FBI. “But you can definitely make it worse.”

(Pictured above: “Bad News“, by Steve Davis [Photo credit: Dialysis Technician Salary] licensed for re-use by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

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