Finding good ways to break bad news

by Jack Sheard, IdeaBank Marketing Strategist


Every superintendent has received the phone call from a school principal: “Boss, we have a problem.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a threat or a mistake or a false alarm: The stress and pressure are on. Time to start putting out the fire.

The big question is how to communicate the situation. Who do we tell? How do we tell them? How much do we tell them? When do we tell them? Why even bother, since the situation is over?

Are you considering keeping it quiet? After all, why spread bad news about your school district? How can that be a good idea?

Things to consider

Yep, the pressure is definitely on. A few thoughts to consider:

  • From whom do you want students’ parents to hear about this incident?
  • When would you want to receive this information as a parent? As a school board member? As a member of your district staff?
  • What is the risk of communicating vs. not communicating with a particular audience?

The answers to these questions will not dictate IF you communicate, rather simply what, how and when you communicate with each audience.

Own your story

Better coming from you quote

First and foremost, once you know students and staff are safe, it’s time to make sure your board, your staff and all parents also know it. Right away.

Be accurate, be timely, be concise ... and definitely be the source of your story. You need to own the story, even when it’s bad news. That does three HUGE things for you:

  1. It allows you to shape the story. You break the news and set the first impression, which is hard to overcome. You set the tone, establishing authority. You eliminate the unknown, which oftentimes causes rumors to form. You can focus the audience on the most important elements to remember.
  2. It keeps trust high with all audiences. If you are willing to share this negative news, people are more likely to trust you when you share positive news.
  3. It builds audience expectations for the future — in a very good way. When rumors start to spread, or even whispers of something going down, people will expect to hear from you and be more apt to wait for your message before sharing. People will also learn to share your message to stop rumors from spreading.

The risk of not telling an audience is harsh: Someone who doesn’t have your knowledge of the situation will not break this news with your best interests in mind. If news is bad, it is always better coming from you than someone else.

Trust is key

Your school board certainly doesn’t want to hear bad news about the district from an upset parent’s Facebook post. Nor do parents want to read about a situation at their child’s school yesterday in this morning’s newspaper. Staff don’t like hearing school news of any type from a student.

An important note: Kids and adults make mistakes. Communicating about these mistakes does not have to reflect poorly on your district, but not communicating about them can. Each interaction you have with your audiences can build trust; each missed opportunity can take it away.

Be Proactive

Of course, you don’t have to wait for the phone to ring with bad news to take action. It’s good to be proactive in your reactions to bad news. It is important to know how your audience wants to hear news, good or bad. Your comprehensive communication plan (based on your district research) should tell you how audiences want to be informed and where they may be hearing versions of the story you need to correct.

Learn more about how IdeaBank Education can help you prepare for crisis communication, audience expectations and community relations at ideabankeducation.com.