Guest Post by Shakirah Dawud

Let me just say first that I’m writing this with the certainty that one of you PR pros will fly out of nowhere, tackle me to the floor, and pin me there with a stern lecture straight from your training about how to do this.

But here goes.

I’m going to be discussing how to deliver bad business news in print, which I think is more important because of the fact that people keep records of bad news the way they keep lottery tickets: just in case.

You need to ensure you don’t open the door for that case with the kind of recorded communication lawyers love.

Be respectful. 

There’s only one thing worse than bad news: bad news that insults the receiver.

Pay attention to details like name spellings and dates, and use language that’s straightforward. Everything I’ve ever read about delivering bad news says not to sneak it in between platitudes and pretty fare-thee-wells.

Be a windowpane.

Clarity is essential in any communication, but when an employee is being terminated or funding money is going to a different grant next year, go back and read over what you’ve written, to be sure that under the legalese and diplomacy you’ve actually said what you mean to say–and plainly.

Be the message, not the messenger. 

This is harder than it seems. Choices to avoid are subjective structures like “I think.” The active voice can easily put you in a tight spot, which is why you may have noticed so many communications like this use passive voice.

Know the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy is, according to Merriam-Webster’s simplest definition, “a relationship … wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other,” whereas empathy from M-W is “being aware of … another person’s feelings, experiences, and emotions.

When you sympathize with someone’s condition, you’re ready to feel whatever they feel about the bad news you’ve given them. When you empathize, you understand those feelings–which may cause reactionary feelings within you–but they aren’t the same as the other person’s.

If words that express feelings enter into your letter at all, make sure they stem from the latter.

Stop when you’ve hit home. 

As with all communications, don’t belabor your point after it’s been made. You don’t need a whole other paragraph to stroke your ego, reassure yourself, or ease your burning gut.

You noticed how I only mentioned the effects it will have on you? Because after your intent is clear, everything else is meaningless gibberish to recipients. Let them absorb the message in peace.

I feel duty-bound to add that the photographer of the image above had this to say about receiving bad news:

 They should just omit all the rest and send you one word: Unfortunately.

Have you ever sent or received any memorable messages that delivered bad news?

Photo credit: ambimb, courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.

Shakirah Dawud is the writer and editor behind Deliberate Ink. Based in Maryland with roots in New York, she’s been crafting effective marketing copy as a writer and polishing many forms of prose as an editor since 2002. Clients in many fun sizes, industries, and locations reach her through the Web.