If there’s one thing that’s constant in UK public sector communications at the moment, it’s the need to communicate difficult messages.
Whether communicating changes to services provided to the public or communicating radical changes within an organisation, the skills to effectively communicate difficult messages are going to be vital in the next few months and years in the public sector.
I won’t pretend I have a magic solution to this, but I always remember a model that my line manager during a store placement at Boots during the first 18 months of my career told me about. The model’s called the change curve.
It was originally created by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 to illustrate how people deal with the news that they have a terminal illness. As with all such academic models it has its challengers and debaters, but it’s a tool that I’ve used at times in my career when looking at how to communicate difficult messages – so is something that’s worth checking out if you’ve not used it before.
It sets out a number of emotional phases people experience when receiving bad news:
Take for example (and from personal experience at a previous employer) a major redundancy programme, consider the possible reactions at each stage in the curve:
Immobilisation – …the instant shock of receiving news renders you unable to think about much else…
Denial – …as the shock takes hold, the feeling that this can’t happen to you takes over. On the other hand maybe it won’t affect you too much after all…
Anger – …but then you become angry that this really is happening to you…
Bargaining – …and you begin to wonder if this is your fault. What did you do to deserve this? Is there a way out or around it?…
Depression – …but pretty quickly you realise there’s not and it all seems pretty bleak…
Testing – …and before long you start to think of new options, permutations from the new way forward that weren’t previously obvious or possible. Thinking about these gives the future a new shape…
Acceptance – …and gradually for one reason or another a clear path forward emerges that you can rationalise to your satisfaction. Over time you accept the change and your new way forward and get on with it.
There is, of course, no way of predicting how people will react at each phase of the curve – but it does help anticipate and plan for some reactions, and think about the need for different messaging phases in a communications strategy for bad news.
Because people are different emotionally in this way, I’d also suggest that any communications tactics employed need to take account of the differential paces of emotional reactions. Different people will go through the curve at different paces.
In practice that means that you may well need to provide several opportunities to re-communicate what may seem like very similar messages, and be prepared for different reactions each time.
It also means providing access to information or a back catalogue of information or materials communicated so people at different stages of the curve can reference previously communicated facts or statements.
When implementing change that can be perceived as negative, it’s also worth thinking about points in the change process where you need interaction, contribution or co-operation from your audience. Consider how you can communicate with them so that they’ve gone through some of the more extreme phases of emotional reaction before you need the opportunity to engage with them more constructively.
Communicating bad news is never the happiest work a communicator can do, but that’s no reason to not use a strategic model like the change curve to plan and deliver communications.
While this week will inevitably bring many changes that people don’t like of one sort or another, effective, honest, open and well-planned communications will help those involved through the change curve while minimising the inevitable distress involved in unpopular or unwelcome changes.