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Got Bad News? How to Communicate When You Do


Got Bad News? How to Communicate When You Do

You may have seen media coverage of the tamale fiasco that unfolded last month in Southern California when Amapola Markets sold bad masa, the dough used to make tamales, to hundreds of people preparing holiday dinners. The chain was promptly flooded with angry reports of tamales that failed to cook properly, that marred family gatherings, and in a few cases, that caused illness.

It’s the type of crisis many organizations will face sometime in their life span. It could be a chain of food stores. It also could be a hedge fund manager facing investors after wiping out their assets with a risky strategy, or a police chief addressing a scared community after failing to apprehend a child abductor. It usually involves a top executive facing stakeholders who are reeling from some failing by the organization, perceived or real.

Here, we can take a few cues from Carlos Galvan Jr., Amapola’s vice president and chief financial officer, who stated simply after the reports, “We’re devastated,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We’re not entirely sure yet what occurred,” he said, later adding that the problem seemed to come from defective corn purchased from a vendor.

A statement on the company’s site expressed how “saddened and sorry” the Galvan family felt about the disappointment and ruined holidays, and that the masa “just does not taste good as it should.”

In these moments, there is often a tendency to go on the defensive and treat customers as assumed enemies or potential litigants. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for a police spokesperson being pressed by a reporter to revert to the overly official “we can neither confirm nor deny” language for sensitive investigations. They don’t always recognize that addressing the community’s fears with a “we know you are worried,” while explaining why more details can’t be shared is actually more effective, even though neither statement discloses any information that would compromise a case.

Galvan’s tactical response wasn’t without glitches, but the executive was able to show his customer base the company was willing scramble to issue refunds as quickly as possible, and do so with humility. He spoke to his customers as if they were his neighbors, friends or family members.

As a testament to the power of that humble approach, one customer concluded the company was going “to do us right,” according to an online report of NBC4, Los Angeles. “Mistakes happen,” he added, “and I’m pretty sure I’ll come buy their masa next year.”

The right delivery can mean the difference between preserving brand loyalty and losing a business. Bungling the public response to a crisis can sometimes cause more damage than the mishap itself. Conversely, swift, unequivocal action that addresses critical questions with transparency, takes steps to minimize damage, and acknowledges the pain customers feel in a way one friend would for another could actually go a long way toward boosting a company’s image.

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