4 Communication Shipwrecks, and What Your Company Can Learn From Them
Communication shipwrecks are communication disasters. They can result in embarrassment for a company’s brand, loss of customers, upset employees—even injuries and deaths. And they’re actually fairly common, even for high-profile people and companies.
In the articles “Communication Shipwrecks: Part One” and “Communication Shipwrecks: Part Two,” for example, we compiled more than 20 cases.
In this post, we examine four of the communication shipwrecks discussed in the articles. We hope your company can learn from the lessons presented here, instead of learning them the hard way—through suffering a communication shipwreck.
1. LeBron James
The shipwreck: Who can forget “The Decision”? Basketball superstar LeBron James wishes he could. On July 8, 2010, James announced on a tremendously hyped ESPN special of that name that he was leaving his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers to “take my talents to South Beach” to join the Miami Heat. The special was so glitzy that it made fans feel both uncomfortable and angry. It was as if James were declaring himself for the presidency, while simultaneously publicly thumbing his nose at Cleveland.
Within hours, James was ridiculed and cyberspace and TV were full of venomous comments directed at him. Later, James said that if he had to do it again, “I probably would do [the announcement] a little bit different.” Indeed, when he returned to the Cavaliers in 2011, he made the announcement quietly, in an essay in Sports Illustrated.
The lesson: As the saying goes, “The medium is the message,” and tone is as important as content. News delivered boastfully on prime-time national TV has a different effect from news delivered modestly in a magazine. In the workplace it’s the same. News delivered by company-wide memo, for example, has a different effect from news delivered by more carefully targeted emails or in-person meetings.
The shipwreck: In February 2013, the tech company’s HR department sent a memo to all employees announcing that henceforth all employees would be required to work in the company’s office. This instantly overturned the lives of many Yahoo! employees who, until then, had been allowed to work from home.
The memo “explained” the change by claiming, for example:
- “We want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum.”
- “I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.”
Employees found such statements empty and unpersuasive. What, they wanted to know, were the real reasons for the change? Was telecommuting hurting the company’s productivity? Was it costing the company money? Had the company even explored other solutions? The memo didn’t address any such substantive issues. As a result, employee morale plummeted.
The lesson: In any business, communications with employees must be clear, honest, respectful, and thorough. Any workplace document, whether directed up the corporate chain or down, should take into account what its audience wants and needs to know. When your company delivers important news, remember that spin is no substitute for substance.
The shipwreck: On Christmas Day, 2013, Santa Claus was the victim of a communication failure. During most of the day on Christmas Eve that year, UPS, the package delivery company, continued to assure customers online that their Christmas gifts would arrive by Christmas morning. Then suddenly, at the very end of the day, thousands of customers were told that, nope, sorry, their packages wouldn’t arrive until after Christmas. For thousands of UPS customers, Santa would miss his deadline.
The failure to deliver was bad enough. UPS’ delay in communicating the problem was just as bad. And worse, still, was the way UPS responded to the snafu: it cavalierly tried to dismiss the problem, claiming that “only a small percentage” of customers were affected—hardly consoling to those thousands of households where Santa failed to show up.
The lesson: Timely, accurate, honest communication is at the heart of good customer service—and of good business practices, period.
The shipwreck: Sadly, even tragedy can result from poor communication.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in midair 73 seconds after taking off, killing seven crew members, one of the great tragedies in the history of the U.S. space program. It was later determined that an O-ring, never tested in temperatures as low as those that morning, had failed to seal off superheated gases. According to the IEEE Professional Communication Society, this wasn’t just a technical failure—it was a communication failure.
Previous data that left open the possibility of a problem with the O-ring had been weakly presented or ignored. In some cases, the data that did exist were not taken seriously either because those who raised concerns lacked authority or because the chain of reporting was broken. Some in authority also resisted pushing back the high-profile flight, leading them to view the technical data in a hostile light.
The lesson: No matter how smart your technical experts, if the information they generate is not communicated forcefully and clearly and not sent up and down the communication chain effectively, then unfortunate, sometimes tragic, events can occur.
For more examples of costly communication shipwrecks and what your company can learn from them, read the articles “Communication Shipwrecks: Part One” and “Communication Shipwrecks: Part Two.”