26 March 2020 – No one chooses to be the bearer of bad news. But leaders simply cannot run away from this responsibility. Yet, its delivery is as ominous as the crisis itself.
When Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriot Hotels, recently addressed staff in a video message on the hotel group’s response to the coronavirus crisis, he exhibited mastery over the art of delivering bad news with a balance of facts and emotion, determination and vulnerability and strength and concern.
The best-case scenario when delivering bad news is to engender the wholehearted support of the people who will bear the brunt of the crisis. Sorenson may very well have achieved that.
Opening with honesty
Sorenson dives straight into the objective of the video message with no fanfare and preamble. Here is a man on a mission with little time to spare for petty anecdotes and captivating openings. He gets straight to the significance of this message to him personally, branding it as “the most difficult video message we have ever pulled together”. He states from the outset he is invested in this crisis and is not shirking from his duty as the commander in chief.
He immediately pulls the heartstrings of his staff by acknowledging the behind-the-scenes discussion over the appropriateness of his appearance. He looked gaunt, tired, and had lost his hair from treatment for pancreatic cancer. It seems in PR practice almost counter-intuitive to show him in all his frailty at a time when the leader needs to be seen to be strong and in charge. But his self-deprecation in referring to his “new look” turns common practice on its head as he addresses the elephant in the room and takes control. He slides unobtrusively from his personal challenge to the “common crisis we face”, quietly stamping his selfless concern for staff.
Put people first
He segues into the business of the day by firstly addressing those who have been affected “as a patient, family member or friend”, expressing his concern for them. If anything, when delivering bad news to people, remember it’s the people and not the bad news that must stand out. This, Sorenson has done delicately well.
Be succinct and clear in delivering the facts
Sorenson points out unapologetically that the company has been winded by this crisis in spite of having been around for close to a century and having faced events like the Great Depression and World War Two. In fact, the prevailing crisis is worse that the recent meltdowns of 9/11 and the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, combined! It’s a bitter pill that cannot be sugar-coated. He pointedly presents the foreboding numbers – losses of 90% in China, while in other parts of the world, performance is down 75% below normal levels. This has forced hundreds of hotels to shut.
Clarity is what people seek in a time of crisis and delivering the sucker punch as it is, must be done. In many ways, that’s what brave leadership entails. Sorenson’s even tone as he releases the numbers reflects a leader who is determined to stare down the numbers.
All bad news must be met head-on with plans that are still within the company’s control. For the Marriot group, there’ll be a cut back in non-essential travel and a hiring freeze in most cases. There will be initiatives both at global and local levels, recognizing the autonomy of local operations who are better able to gauge their own needs.
Interestingly, Sorenson slips in a personal sacrifice in the middle of the litany of measures. He and John Marriot, the Chairman, will not take a salary for the entire year. In addition, the executive team will take a 50% pay cut.
Once again, this seems counter-intuitive from the standpoint of communication strategy. If he were to go to town about such a huge personal sacrifice, as most leaders would, he would’ve mentioned it at the start of the plans, or at the end. Known as the primacy and recency effects respectively, these are methods of emphases.
But burying his pro bono efforts for a year seems consistent with the self-effacing message he has been delivering. First, he brushes aside his obvious ill-health, expresses concern for those affected by the virus, and now, he mentions his own personal sacrifice almost as an aside.
This structure seems to work marvelously in drawing attention to the sincerity, and not the largesse, of the company’s leaders.
A light at the end of the tunnel
While being clear about the challenges and contingencies ahead, Sorenson begins his move towards the future. This is crucial for leaders in tough times, as workers look to them for hope and a vision. Without being overly optimistic, Sorensen points out some early signs of recovery in China as it emerges from the worst of the virus and begins to move the cogwheels of manufacturing once again. Slowly but surely, Sorenson claims, demand for lodging is showing signs of recovery as a result.
Sorenson is careful not to over-promise, stating “IF it holds, it MAY bode well” (emphasis mine) for the company moving forward. The tentative tone underlines the weight that Sorenson is mindful of bearing as he balances responsibility with optimism.
In his penultimate message, Sorenson returns to the subject he started with and what apparently matters most to him – his employees. He reiterates how he’s “never had a more difficult moment than this one” and, for a moment, chokes slightly. With a barely audible tremble in his voice, he regrets having to tell his staff how they will be affected by the crisis.
To the skeptical, it may seem a matter of good showmanship. However, bearing in mind that this is a man who, in battling cancer, has had to deal with his own humanity, it may not be too far fetched an idea that he really was moved by the trail of disruption this crisis is leaving on the more vulnerable. The controlled emotion expressed over the difficulties his staff endears him even more than flowing tears.
Speaking in the tone of the great American frontiersmen, Sorenson concludes with his hope that when the crisis ends, “our guests will be eager to travel this beautiful world again”, opening vistas of hope and beauty, qualities in short supply in the current doldrums. Being the visionary that he is Sorenson calls on his staff to be ready, for “when that great day comes, we will be there to welcome them.” It would’ve been a picture-perfect ending, but not for the people person that Sorenson is. Instead of a grand gesture, he concludes with a routine encouragement to staff to take care of themselves.
Sorenson, through his sincerity, has demonstrated a masterclass in this unenviable task. It is a hard message to deliver and, as he is aware, a harder message to bear. But with his call to associates to keep their eyes on the rough and bumpy road ahead and their hearts on a new future, the staff at Marriot can still hold fast to what lies ahead – difficult as it may be, hopeful they must be.