Three Helpful Lessons from United on Negative Messaging

The executive response to the highly publicized, overcrowded flight on United Express Flight 3411 provides both good and bad lessons on crafting  effective negative messages. We can learn a lot from other businesses, too.

Employ Direct Language

Direct remains best in business writing. Why? Because then we remain clear, concise, and possessing some integrity. For example, the truly horrific event that occurred on this flight…. in this message from United’s Mr. Munoz sounds less sincere than the more direct language the premier chooses in a later message to his Frequent Flyer readers. In that later message, the CEO writes:

Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words.

Also, where possible, avoid wordy and cool-sounding constructions like camouflaged verbs. Employ real verbs instead for optimum executive presence. For instance, Sears Holdings called its layoffs of hundreds of employees over the holidays a “transformation.” (I doubt many of the staff who lost their jobs that week would feel “transformed.”) Additionally, while Mr. Dorsey of Twitter no doubt needed buffering, he would sound more executive if he wrote, “we’ve decided we must let go vs. we’ve made the extremely rough decision to let go…”

Structure the Message Well (with the bottom line up top)

For best practices, I recommend the following negative message pattern:

  • A subject line mentioning the bad news. For example, Product X Launch Delayed Until ABC date — Please Read.
  • Short buffer (in the intro). I recommend 1-2 sentences maximum. (You want to cut to the news quick.)
  • State the bad news (the bottom line) in the intro too and within that all the reader needs to know of the news. If you’ve missed your launch, for instance, state the revised deadline and any reasons for the miss. Within the bottom line, also apologize (only once).
  • A body outlining reasons and solutions. Within the body, preempt any questions your audience might have and flesh out anything you brought up in your bottom line. Robust specifics work best. Employ bulleted lists, if needed, and subheads, too.
  • A warm, upbeat close.

(Please note: I’m citing the pattern I learned from Dr. Heidi Schultz, founder of Kenan-Flagler Business School’s business communication program.) 

Frequently, businesses mention the bottom line (like layoffs) deep down in a message. Consider this awful example from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey who mentioned the plans to release 336 staff in paragraph four. This strategy always ends badly; the readers feel hugely insulted and angry. Nor did this message preempt the readers’ questions well. For instance, where will the cuts happen? Which divisions remain intact?

Sound (and show you’re) Sorry

Effective negative messages, like any business messages, must sound sorry.  (Yet frequently I see this vital word missing in bad news.) In the case of United Airlines’ earlier messages from CEO Oscar Munoz, the words “I sorry,” and “I apologize” appeared; however, the tone itself (and the failure to state directly what happened, which I mention earlier) made the message sound less sorry than the writers probably intended.  The later message from United explaining what the company will do differently, i.e. no longer use law enforcement to remove passengers from flights has a much better feeling and show of integrity.

How do you use negative messaging at work? What strategies work for you? Write and let us know. Happy writing!

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