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May 13, 2020

Approx. 5 min. read

How to Deliver Bad News — a Lesson from the Airbnb CEO

Sharing bad news sucks. Period. No matter what the news is, if you care about the person on the receiving end of it (and I hope you do), you want to...

Sharing bad news sucks. Period. No matter what the news is, if you care about the person on the receiving end of it (and I hope you do), you want to make the impact to be as painless as possible. Unfortunately, the magic spell that makes bad news feel like a carnival doesn't exist. But wait, before you shoot the messenger, let me share an excellent example of crisis communications from Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky. Last week, Brian had to deliver a bitter message of goodbye to nearly 1,900 of his employees. The way he did it can be a lesson of leadership communications for everyone.

🔎Download the eBook "10 Principles of Modern Employee Communications" and learn how to communicate with the modern employee in today's digital age. 

A brief backstory

The COVID-19 crisis has hit the travel industry hard. The American Hotel & Lodging Association released a report showing that 70% of hotel employees have been laid off or furloughed as eight in 10 hotel rooms across the US remain empty. 

The Silicon Valey unicorn Airbnb was not safe from the massive impact of the pandemic. With the bookings done through the service collapsing by as much as 96% since the beginning of the quarantine, the company has lost billions in valuation and hundreds of millions in revenue. As a result, on May 5th Brian Chesky announced that Airbnb forced to lay off 25% of the company. In his note, Chesky was empathic, honest, and to the point.

Let's break down Chesky's message and see what we can learn from it. 👇

What? So what? And now what?

Clarity is critical, especially in uncertain times of crisis. Yet, many leaders are failing to deliver clear, actionable messages when addressing their people (take the widely criticized Boris Johnson's speech on the next phase of lockdown, for example). 

In the April's Comms Helpline session, Steve Crescenzo shared his clarity formula "What? So what? And now what?" and it seems like the Airbnb CEO is following this formula rigorously.

What? Tell your people what they need to know right away. There is no point in lyrical introductions. People have developed banner blindness for that kind of irrelevant noise. Respect their time and cut to the chase.

In his message, right after the opening, Brian Chesky addresses the elephant in the room: "I must confirm that we are reducing the size of the Airbnb workforce." You see, delivering bad news is like ripping off the bandaid — it won't be painless, but at least you can do it quickly. 

In the same section, Chesky gives a short overview of what he will be covering in his message: "I am going to share as many details as I can on how I arrived at this decision, what we are doing for those leaving, and what will happen next."

So what? After saying out loud the bad news, now it's time to explain why this had to happen and what it means for everyone. In his letter, the Airbnb leader has a clear "so what" structure by providing a brief financial background → explaining how the company is pivoting to "a more focused business" → explaining how Airbnb approached reductions → and what it all means for people staying and people leaving.

And now what? What are the concrete, actionable steps from now on? Not only the bad news — any announcement is at risk of falling on deaf ears if it's not crystallized into a step-by-step course of action. In his address, Brian Chesky provides a clear list of bullet points covering severance, equity, healthcare, and job support for the laid-off 25%. On top of that, he set the specific milestones with dates and technicalities of further communications. This is essential — establishing the rules, roles, and channels for continuous multi-way comms in a major project announcement like this one.

Brian Chesky airbnb smarp quote

Notice how Chesky uses the company’s mission to support his message and make it more human-centered.

 

Flow, Structure & Human Language

When I first read Brian's announcement on Airbnb's website, I didn't skip a word. I am not working for Airbnb, I am not even a regular user of their services, yet every sentence I was reading made me want to read the next one. I felt like I was reading a message from my friend, not a corporate announcement. I am sure the Airbnb employee must have felt something similar.

What's the secret? Brian's simple, friendly language was framed in a clear structure, and together, they formed a flowing copy. This flow seems simple in theory but takes a lot of writing to master. 

Notice that you won't find any of the recent buzzwords in Chesky's announcement. No "the new normal", or "uncertainty", or "unprecedented times". Why? Because people are sick and tired of those words used by officials that don't even mean anything anymore! Would you rather hear bad news from a friend that speaks the same language as you or from a politician that reads a document with weird terminology?

Here's one easy trick on simplicity and flow I still remember from a journalism school. Read your copy to your kid or your grandparent and edit everything they don't understand. The attention span of the average person in 2020 is shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. If you want your audience to digest your message — break it down into clear and concise pieces.

Empathy

Leadership is about empathy. What makes a good leader into a great one is the ability to relate and connect people, the ability to recognize and share their feelings. 

Brian Chesky airbnb smarp quote w

Sharing bad news sucks. Period. But receiving bad news is still worse. Whether you are addressing a small startup team, a big corporation, or a country, try to put yourself in your people's shoes. And then build your message the way they'd like to be informed.

When addressing his teammates (as he calls them — not employees), Brian Chesky makes it clear that people are the heart and soul of the company. He reassures them that this situation is not their fault. He doesn't let them feel abandoned or betrayed. This is what friends do.

I hope this small case study was useful. Note that all these tips with any leadership announcements. 😉 That said, I sincerely wish you to have only good news to share with your teammates! If you are looking for an employee communication platform to do it timely and effectively ⏤ let's connect.

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Written by

Oles Datsko

Oles Datsko

Marketing Manager

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