Negative Messages

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Writing Negative Messages
LEARNING OBJECTIVES After studying this chapter, you will be able to

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Apply the three-step writing process to negative messages Explain the differences between the direct and the indirect approaches to negative messages, including when it’s appropriate to use each one Identify the risks of using the indirect approach, and explain how to avoid such problems Adapt negative messages for internal and external audiences

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Explain the importance of maintaining high standards of ethics and etiquette when delivering negative messages Explain the role of communication in crisis management List three guidelines for delivering negative news to job applicants and give a brief explanation of each one

When businesses make mistakes, should they apologize? Traditional thinking says they can’t afford to, because doing so is an admission of guilt that can be used against them in lawsuits. However, an emerging school of thought says that apologizing isn’t as risky as previously believed and that courts tend to show leniency toward companies that express remorse after making mistakes. The large accounting firm KPMG recently faced this situation when the U.S. Internal Revenue Service ruled that certain tax shelters (investments created primarily to reduce tax burdens) the company had been recommending for some of its wealthy clients were illegal. Soon after, KPMG faced both a criminal investigation and multiple lawsuits from individual clients who accused the company of encouraging them to break the law. Just a few years earlier, KPMG competitor Arthur Andersen had been convicted in criminal matters of a different type and had collapsed as a result, putting 85,000 people out of work. KPMG faced a classic dilemma. If it apologized in an effort to avoid criminal prosecution, that would be seen as an admission of guilt that could be used against it in all those civil suits.

ISBN: 0-536-53056-4

When the accounting firm KPMG publicly apologized for the illegal actions of some of its partners (one of whom, Jeffrey Eischeid, is shown here leaving the courthouse), the admission of guilt helped save the firm from potentially devastating criminal charges but might well have worked against it in numerous client lawsuits.

Specially prepared for d03371341 on 23 Apr, 2010

Business Communication Today, Ninth Edition, by Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2008 by Pearson Education, Inc.



Crafting Brief Messages ter business. However, the admission of guilt was welcomed by lawyers representing KPMG clients. “It’s stunning. Obviously, it’s very helpful,” said one. That optimism seemed warranted, as the firm was later forced to pay most of its tax shelter clients a total of more than $150 million and lawsuits from the remaining clients are likely to drag on for years.1

Apparently deciding that a criminal charge would be more dangerous, KPMG issued the following statement: “KPMG takes full responsibility for the unlawful conduct by former KPMG partners . . . and we deeply regret that it occurred.” The apology seemed to help, as the firm avoided a criminal indictment by agreeing to pay a fine of nearly a half-billion dollars and to get out of the tax shel-

Apply the three-step writing process to negative messages Five goals of negative messages: • Give the bad news • Ensure its acceptance • Maintain reader’s goodwill • Maintain organization’s good image • Reduce future correspondence on the matter

Chances are slim that you’ll ever need to issue a message like KPMG’s (profiled in the chapteropening Communication Close-Up), but communicating other kinds of negative news is a fact of life for all business professionals, from rejecting job applicants to telling customers that shipments will be late to...
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