Communication Strategies for Difficult Situations

StrategyKnowing what to say and how to respond during a crisis is crucial to maintaining your company?s good name.

It was about a year ago when Tony Hayward, then CEO of oil giant BP, made an unwise comment in the wake of a tragic explosion and massive oil spill. While the spill was still in the process of being contained, Hayward spoke to a reporter saying, ?There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.? The world responded with outrage, condemning his comments as selfish and insensitive to all those affected by the environmental catastrophe. A few months later Hayward resigned.

Most small businesses will never find themselves in the same position as BP, however mistakes and other unfortunate situations can happen to any company. Knowing what to say and how to respond is crucial to maintaining an organization?s good name. Further effective communication strategies are not only needed when dealing with clients and the public, but also for internal staff as well.?

Planning what you?re going to say

It?s easier to say the right thing if you know what you want to accomplish. It?s also good to prepare in advance. You can actually visualize a positive outcome along with a few acceptable alternatives and script the dialogue that will get you to your goal. Having such a plan will enable you to feel more in control in what might perhaps be a chaotic situation. In Lifescripts for Managers?edited by Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levin?the authors assert that ?by scripting, you ensure that conversation will stay on track?lifescripts help pave the way for smoother workplace relations and better office communications.?


There are several elements to an ethical apology according to Keith Michael Heartit author of Crisis Management by Apology. An ethical apology is truthful, sincere, timely, voluntary, addresses all stakeholders and is performed in an appropriate context.

In terms of the content of the communication, Heartit states that an ethical apology seeks reconciliation. ?An ethical apology will help to effect the repair of the injured relationship?it is in the best interest of all involved to get back to where the relationship was?or to make it better, by starting over with the insights that come from having weathered a storm in the relationship.? This is, of course, if the relationship was mutually beneficial to begin with, writes Heartit.

Delivering bad news

If you?ve had to communicate something unpleasant, according to Susan F. Benjamin author of Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult Situations at Work, it?s best to address the situation in person instead of in an email or letter. If you are present, you can observe the audience?s response and manage your comments accordingly, writes Benjamin. ?If they look alarmed?you can put them at ease with a comment, smile or sympathetic look. Not so with writing. They may be shrieking with rage or nodding with sad understanding?how would you know??

When bringing up the controversial subject in a meeting, Benjamin suggests you start out warmly saying something like ?I think it?s important that you know?? Then tell them the bad news.