The One Way to Deliver Unwelcome News

Imagine you are leaders of an important community institution, one some might even describe as beloved.  You have a difficult policy change to announce, one presumably driven by relevant data and reflecting the best option from among many that were thoughtfully considered. Despite the case you can make for it, the decision is not going to be popular with many. How would you share it?


Did you answer "never really come right out and say it in an obtuse two-page press release"?  Because that was the approach the Indianapolis Museum of Art (and presumably the PR firm that advises it) opted for in announcing the elimination of free general admission, a practice in place from 1941 to 2005 and 2007-present (according to this article in the Indianapolis Business Journal.  An admission fee ($7) was charged in 2006, but was eliminated when attendance declined.

My focus here is not on the potential merits of the policy change, but on how it was communicated. At some point we all have to share decisions that our stakeholders won't like. Knowing how to do so is a critical leadership competency. I'm using the IMA examples as a case study from which other community institutions and professional associations might learn.

All of my professional experiences and formal training in media relations and crisis management suggest there is one way to deliver unwelcome news: honestly, clearly, and transparently.  That's not to say this prevents negative reactions. What it means is that you spend your time in conversation about the merits of your decision and the concerns people have rather than the process you used and the cloaked language you used to spin the ultimate decision.

I don't have a degree in journalism or public relations, so maybe I'm revealing ignorance as to why the IMA approach is a better one.  To me, the press release avoids stating the reality of the major change, tries to turn the liabilities of its decision into an unqualified asset, and sounds like something a major corporation fearing criticism or lacking faith in its decision might create.  Here's how my layman mind would have approached the same release. My opening:
For 70 years the IMA has offered free general admission.  After much study, we have regretfully determined that continuing to do so simply is not sustainable. 
That's the conclusion that the leadership reached, so why not put it on the table succinctly. It's the Band-Aid approach. It hurts to rip it off in one swoop (ouch!), but it hurts more to gingerly peel it back a little at a time (ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch)!

Once the bottom line decision has been communicated, you can now address the array of questions people will have.  That the IMA did not create a FAQ for this announcement is a huge unforced error in my mind. Don't make it yourself the next time you share a significant shift in policy.  What might a FAQ include? Well, in this instance:
  1. Relevant financial data that illustrates the need
  2. Highlights of other options that were considered
  3. Rationale for the new policy and admission charge
  4. How the IMA matches up to other comparable institutions and why they may have different admission practices
  5. Accommodations for people who value the IMA's offerings, but can't afford membership or admission fees
  6. What new benefits and opportunities are being offered
It's easy to focus on better mechanics of the decision roll-out.  But that avoids what I believe is a more important issue: just as members rightly feel they "own" their professional association, so do the arts and horticulture-loving residents of Indianapolis feel that they "own" the IMA. This sense of ownership (something most marketers dream of cultivating), of a strong affinity for an institution, means that we want to be treated like an owner: when a major policy decision is made, but even more importantly, when one is even being considered. 

If the IMA held public conversations with stakeholders around this difficult decision, I certainly never heard about them.  Did they have to?  Absolutely not.  But the IMA is an institution that cares enough about community engagement to now have a staff member with designated responsibility for cultivating it.

Institutions are shortsighted to think of cultivation only in obvious metrics like program attendees or memberships.  What any professional association or community institution also cultivates is a place of importance, meaning, and identity in the lives of its stakeholders.  We are active characters in the institution's story, not just passive consumers of its content. The reason nonprofits use the term stakeholders is because those they serve have a stake in what the institution does.

One of my mentors about what it means to serve as the leader (volunteer or staff) of a nonprofit institution is a gentleman named Frank Ruck. Frank indelibly drilled into my brain the real meaning behind the title of Trustee: we hold "in trust" the trust of those we serve and their faith in the institution.  Diminishing or dismissing this vital bond is demeaning for all involved and potentially destructive for the institution.

Honesty. Clarity. Transparency. That is how we deliver unwelcome news.

We treat our stakeholders as owners and demonstrate to them through the decisions we make, the process for making them, and the manner with which we communicate them that their trust in us and the institution is not misplaced. Never is that more important than when difficult decisions have to be made.

I can pay the cost of membership and I can pay admission for out-of-town guests, so I'm holding a position of privilege in relation to the new IMA fees. For me, the decision itself is a question of strategy: how does an important community institution create revenue streams to sustain its long-term future while also ensuring reasonably frequent access to those who are unable to afford its admission or membership fees? I'm not sure free general admission only one night a month for five hours is inclusive enough a commitment for a flagship community institution.

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