A chicken walking

Sharing the bad news: don’t be afraid of being called Chicken Little

July 1, 2021

Sharing the bad news: don’t be afraid of being called Chicken Little

Critical Takeaways

  • Sharing bad news, and warning of impending danger, is a necessary part of being a crisis communicator. 
  • These warnings don’t always play out leading some people to worry that they are going to be accused of being Chicken Little: always warning that the sky is falling.
  • Trust your gut and your instincts as the expert in your area and use assessment tools like the consequence/reversibility matrix to test your ideas to give you additional confidence.

As a crisis communicator, or someone who understands risk and reputation, you might often find yourself seeing something or concern but you might not say anything because you don’t want to be called Chicken Little. 

If you remember the parable of Chicken Little, Henny Penny gets hit on the head with an acorn. She goes on a journey to tell the king that the sky is falling and has several adventures along the way. The details are a bit different depending upon the version of the story, but the one I prefer – the one with the happy ending – stresses the importance of being courageous, and telling your story, because it very well could be true. 

However, not every potential threat or event of concern does develop into a crisis or critical moment. That makes us cautious about sharing bad news because we’re worried that we’ll be labeled Chicken Little and become less credible. However, speaking truth to power is one of our main roles. So how do we overcome this concern?

Consequence versus reversibility

But there’s an easy way to avoid this label of Chicken Little and to still share what’s important. Instead of passing along everything of concern right away, take a moment and run your guidance and advice through a simple framework to assess the situation and what you’re recommending. 

There are lots of different assessment models and you may have your own favorite but there’s one we really like. We use this to think about recommendations in the context of high consequence versus low consequence and reversibility versus irreversibility. 

Consequence versus reversibility matrix

This matrix forces you to consider the consequences of what you’re proposing by asking are they high or low? It also makes you think about whether or not the decision is reversible. Something lower consequence that’s reversible – increasing the amount of social media monitoring – is a low-stakes recommendation as the consequences of being wrong are negligible. You might get called Chicken Little but there’s no lasting damage.

However, something high consequence that’s irreversible – like publicly firing your CFO – could cause lasting damage if you’re wrong so you need to spend more time thinking about this recommendation and assessing the situation. You might still make the recommendation – and it still might be the wrong course to take – but it’s not something you rushed into and it was the best course of action to recommend at that time. Remember, hindsight is 20/20 so all you can do is to make the best decisions with what you have to hand in the moment.

If you think about the recommendation you’re making in this context, it’ll bring a lot more clarity into the recommendation – and strengthen your convictions about why you believe it. 

Adding context

This is also a model you can apply to other people’s warnings.

Too often, people come running into the office saying “It’s blowing up on Twitter!” But I have no idea what to do with that because there’s no context. 

But if it’s about a new product launch that’s of high consequence. And a product launch can’t be reversed. So that’s something that we really need to think about and focus on. If you use this tool, apply this paradigm, and practice this way of thinking, it creates an X and Y axis that can help you understand the consequences. 

And again, even if you’re wrong – and you will be wrong at times, especially with the benefit of hindsight – it’s not because you came to a rushed judgment. You did your best with the information you had available. 

You might get labeled Chicken Little by some but you know that’s not the case and the confidence you have in your advice will show others that your guidance isn’t given lightly.

Trust Your Gut

Finally, don’t lose sight of your unique role and expertise. As a crisis communicator and as someone who understands the public, you are the expert at understanding the public and sharing that wisdom. So trust your gut, and trust your instincts. Sharing your perspective is the main reason you’re there and the key value-add that you provide to your organization. 

But also use tools and techniques to check your instincts. 

I use the consequence versus reversibility matrix when I’m thinking through vexing challenges that we need to confront, to help decide how to respond. It helps me make fast decisions when the stakes are lower. And it lets me identify and cater to the decisions that need more deliberation.

So have courage, trust your gut, and use tools like this to help strengthen your resolve if you need to. 

And don’t be afraid to be called Chicken Little occasionally.

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

Filed under: Blog

Bill Coletti

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.