Saying Hard Things – Focus on a Bigger Picture

June 25, 2020

Critical takeaways:

  • In a crisis, organizations should aim to be understood, not loved.
  • Focus on a bigger picture to meet reasonable people’s expectations for a responsible organization.
  • Spend your efforts communicating to the reasonable 80% and not over-indexing for the unreasonable 20%.

Last week, and during our COVID-19 webinar series, I talked about the need to own the disappointment when you’re saying hard things to people who matter. Saying hard things inevitably disappoints people because we have acted in a way contrary to their expectations. We cannot write magic words that will keep people affected by an adverse decision from being upset.

Too often, leaders hold communicators to a standard of getting everyone to love us. It’s already a high bar when you’re doing everything right. It gets much higher when you’re not meeting expectations. If you’re in a crisis, or if you’re saying hard things, you should not be looking for love. That is not the bar.

The bar is understanding. You want the people to understand why you’re taking these actions. When it comes to reputation, the question you need to ask is, “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?” Leadership professor Helio Fred Garcia posed this question when he looked at the response to Hurricane Katrina, and it’s resonated with me ever since.

We can’t ask this question if we’re trying to get people to love us. If we’re looking for love, then we might ask ourselves, “What does everyone want to hear from us so they will love us for what we’re doing today?” If you’re in PR or marketing, then perhaps that is the right question to ask. Strategic communicators, especially in times of crisis, need to appeal for understanding from the reasonable people in their key audiences.

Applying the 80/20 Rule

It’s easy to hear a loud noise. Unfortunately for communicators, it’s really easy for CEOs to hear loud noise. We’ve all been in meetings with our top leaders trying to figure out what to say next only to hear someone cry, “Our social media is blowing up right now!” 

Critics are loud. They tweet and comment in ALL CAPS, say incendiary – probably untrue – things about you and yell, scream and swear from whatever platform they can find to anyone who might be listening. Think about the Costco customer who refused to wear a mask and had his cart taken away by a friendly, mask-wearing employee. The customer threatened to share his outrage “on my 3,000-follower Instagram feed, mostly locals.” That particular threat backfired, but it’s tempting to over-index on highly negative reactions coming from a small, but very loud, contingent of critics. 

Reasonable people don’t do any of these things. They don’t shout, or lie or threaten you with a negative social media barrage. Reasonable people react reasonably when they hear reasonable things. Spend your efforts crafting messages for the 80% who are reasonable and quit over-indexing for the 20% who are unreasonable. 

Focusing on a bigger picture helps a responsible organization craft its message for reasonable people. Be conscious of the 20%, but don’t let the trolls and haters dictate how you communicate. Four quiet thumbs up are far, far more important to your long-term reputation than one loud thumb down. 

Telling the Truth vs. Your Truth

In our five-point Framework for Saying Hard Things, we discuss the need to tell the “truth vs. your truth.” In this case, “your truth” is the perspective of the person hearing the message. In cases of layoffs, the truth is we have to do this in order to remain a viable company. Their truth is, they’re losing their job with all the attendant uncertainty and anxiety. And it sucks.

Saying Hard Things Framework

Saying hard things is hard precisely because we care about the people who are most affected, not because we fear people won’t love us anymore. Certainly not because the 20% are going to tee off on us.

Communicating to the 80% is not only about being clear and honest, but also acknowledging their truth while telling the truth. Empathize with the impact that this is going to have on them. Begin with the end in mind. Explain the bigger picture to put their truth in the larger context of the truth. You’re looking for understanding: “You are laying me off, and now I understand why. I don’t like it, but I get it.”

Staying Strong

Particularly in this COVID-19 landscape, we are seeing communicators who started so strong, bold and powerful at the outset become tentative, uncertain and muddy. I believe this happens when communicators over-index for the 20% and not focus on the bigger picture. Perhaps these are the marching orders from the CEO, arising from an expectation that you’ll craft the right messages to get everyone to love you and silence the haters. 

Strategic communicators speak truth to power. Being loved is not the bar to get over – it’s being understood. Reasonable people will see us as a responsible organization doing the best we can in this situation if we frame our messages for the 80% and focus on the bigger picture.

It may not make saying hard things any easier, but it will make crafting those messages easier.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.