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How to Deliver Bad News

Or tell them something they don’t want to hear, while keeping your job!


On February 3, 2017, WLG Board Members Valerie Barone (City Manager, Concord, California) and Jan Perkins (ICMA Liaison to WLG and Senior Partner, Management Partners) hosted an Executive Network call with several city managers.

No one wants bad news. Governing body members are elected to get things done and the chief executive works hard to make that happen. Sometimes, however, the unexpected happens.  Or bad news keeps piling on despite the best efforts of the chief executive and organization. Sometimes we have no choice but be the bearer of bad news. 

The participants in the Executive Network call all had ideas to contribute to the topic of how to deliver bad news. The top 10 tips from the group are listed below. 

1. Keep your governing body informed on an ongoing basis. Elected officials should be accustomed to you providing them the good, the bad and the ugly, even the routine. Operate with the “no surprises” rule.   In your chief executive role, this should be the norm on an ongoing basis, not the exception; they should expect this level of communication regularly. It builds trust – so that when something bad happens, or when a surprise actually does occur, the governing body knows you are telling them as quickly as you can.

2. Do not delay telling elected officials when bad news arises or you can see it coming. They don’t want to hear it from the media in whatever form; they want to hear it from you first, if possible. Waiting only makes it worse, but don’t just drop the problem on them. Let them know you either have a plan or are working on one with your staff.

3. Provide information to elected officials as soon as you can, even if you do not have all the relevant information. Tell them you will keep them updated. Acknowledge that they will want more information and that you will provide it as soon as you can.

4. Develop options and recommend a plan. Let your elected officials know what the plan is as soon as you can – but don’t tell them there is a definitive plan if there is not one. Give them the timeline for the plan. Be transparent about it.

  • Bring in an independent third party when that will help with the plan or provide an objective assessment of the situation.

5. Tell the truth. Provide information as best as you understand it at a particularly point in time. Don’t say anything you cannot substantiate. 

6. Do not use email to convey bad news. Call or meet with your elected officials so they hear it directly from you, or a trusted designee in case of an emergency if it is not practical that you make all the calls.

7. If the news is truly unexpected, explain why. If it is something that had been a potential, remind them of when it was previously discussed and what the agreed upon direction was.

8. Put it in perspective. The bad thing is probably not the end of the world. It’s your job to remind your elected officials of that and help them see the big picture. Most bad news is not fatal – and a plan can be developed to address it.

9. Plan out your media and communications strategy. Figure out who will want to know, who will ask, and what message you want out there.

  • Repeat the message clearly and as often as needed to keep everyone on track.
  • Consider who the right messengers are – could be different people with different audiences.
  • Have a communications strategy in place in advance of the problem – use your social media and other networks effectively throughout your organization’s regular work to build relationships and create avenues of information flow.
  • Retain a crisis communications consultant if you believe it might be helpful.

10. Inspire confidence that you can handle it. Maintain your cool!

Executive Network calls are open to all members of Women Leading Government who are chief executives in their agencies (cities, counties and special districts). 

by: Jan Perkins, Women Leading Government Board Member

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