One of the biggest man-made disasters I can remember is Chernobyl. I once read a book called “Ablaze” which told the story of the meltdown. The thing that shocked me to my core was how eager the protagonists were to cover things up. You’d think that when an alarm sounds at one of your biggest nuclear power stations, the temptation would be to err on the side of caution.
Instead, they called out the local fire brigade. They were equipped as you might imagine a 1980s Soviet fire crew would be. They had little or nothing in the way of protective clothing and the equivalent of a large tank of water on wheels. When they arrived, they did what they could. They pulled out their hoses and sprayed water on the exposed radioactive core. It was only when the brave firemen started keeling over that the men in charge thought to escalate things.
They called in helicopters to drop water and sand on the exposed core. Again, only when they started dropping like flies did the men in charge raise the alert level. I fully believe that they would have covered the whole thing up. It was only when a Scandinavian monitoring station picked up the elevated levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere did the Soviet authorities reluctantly come clean.
The temptation with any bad news is to suppress it. The fact is that bad news needs to be handled very carefully. You need to act F.A.S.T.
Firstly, get the (F)acts straight. What has gone wrong? Why did it go wrong? How will it be fixed? How long will it take? How can we be sure it won’t happen again?
Secondly, think about the (A)udience. Who are you going to tell about the situation? If you fart in church, you apologise to the man next door. You don’t stand up and announce it to the entire congregation. Nor do you take out an advert in the local paper.
The first person I would include in the audience is your boss. Many would instinctively shy away from this, but the chances are, he’s either going to smell the shit on the fan or someone is going to point it out to him. The news is better coming from you. The other people I would include in the audience are any stakeholders who are about to be affected by the bad news.
Thirdly, (S)it down and take a deep breath. Things are going to get ugly. There will be a lot of emotion flying around. The best thing to do is make sure you keep coming back to the facts.
Lastly, (T)ell people what’s going on. Tell them early and tell them often. No communication is much, much worse than a short note to say we realise how serious things are and we are still working hard on the problem. They want to know you are treating it seriously and that they are in safe hands. Keep encouraging your team. They will be facing the pressure too. As much as possible, shield them from it. They will be the ones that get you through it.
And when it’s all over, take a moment to relax. You’ve earned it.