Yesterday I received a very unwelcome letter from a local theater. In a page and a half of crisp copy, it dropped a bombshell: Until further notice, consider the 2009 season canceled. Worse, the money I had spent on season tickets would not be refunded.
After I recovered from the initial shock, I was able to exchange my consumer hat for my marketing cap and reflect that, given the circumstances, the theater (hereafter "The Theater Company") did a damned good job delivering damnably bad news.
I hope none of you will face a similar situation. But in this economy, hope isn't enough; we need to be prepared for the worst. Should it come, I suspect the following observations, gleaned from The Theater Company's experience, will prove helpful. You may not be able to save your business, but you can preserve your self-respect.
1. Offer your gratitude
Wisely, The Theater Company's letter opened and closed with expressions of appreciation for my years of previous support. Your message may be all business, but communicating it is personal. A genuine word of thanks creates a context of goodwill that offers the best chance for extinguishing anger before it flares up into rage.
2. Rip off the Band-Aid
The letter was dated December 30, virtually the bitter end of the previous business year. I suspect The Theater Company delayed communications in the hope that a last-minute reprieve—perhaps in the form of a sugar daddy willing to play Santa Claus—might save the day. But once it became clear that all hope was futile, The Theater Company didn't pull any punches: Employees are being laid off; the season is canceled; your ticket money will not be returned.
Ugly, to be sure. But it's better to put all the bad news out there, up front, rather than try to soften the blow by distributing it piecemeal; better to rip off the Band-Aid in one fell swoop than to pull it away slowly and extend the pain. Withholding information merely provides opportunity for rumor and fearmongering to make a bad situation worse.