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Delivering bad news in the time of COVID: the value of strategic planning and emotional intelligence

“No-one loves the messenger who brings bad news” is a saying that can be traced back to the dawn of civilisation. It’s also said that few things travel faster. 

The brutal reality is that as the largely-predicted second wave of COVID-19 infections drives public and political headlines, so are companies having to grapple with not only how they navigate the consequences, but how they tackle the broad and potentially long-lasting disruption that the virus has created. And that will include sharing bad news for their people. 

As the first economic shockwaves were felt back in the spring and the impact on employees began to be felt, some businesses were held up as shining examples of how to be empathetic, engaging and understanding when delivering bad news about job losses, while plenty of others were called out for their insensitivity. 

It is always difficult to deliver information that people don’t want to hear, no matter what the severity of the change involved. Ensuring that people understand what is happening and why is never a tougher task than when they may be personally and dramatically impacted. People tend to hear things wrongly, or hear little of what’s said, which is only natural. Words can easily sound hollow, and the trust gained in leaders and the company generally can be laid bare. Having to do it remotely adds a largely new and unwelcome dimension.

 

The challenge will likely become acute as bad news swirls when job retention and other COVID support schemes end, and businesses need to realign their operations and cost bases to new realities and opportunities. Communicating redundancies or mass shifts in the employee base is a particular skill. It may be a duty that is anchored with internal communications teams, but involves the compassionate thought and application of all communicators, human resources experts and senior leadership, and will likely require the support and engagement of colleagues across the organisation.

This is where effective, rigorous strategic planning is going to need to come to the fore in dealing with the fallout from COVID. Decisions of this magnitude can never be taken lightly, nor should they be communicated without full consideration of the breadth and depth of the business, its stakeholders and its markets; but most importantly of the feelings and futures of its employees and their families.

It is, unfortunately, a challenge that will occupy much of the hearts and minds of communications teams in the weeks and months ahead, and for which expertise and emotional intelligence will be at a premium.

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