Letting them down gently….communicating bad news

At this time of year, many independent schools are busy processing assessing, examining and interviewing prospective pupils (and often parents) for places for the coming  year.

For some, there will be good news to come and schools are getting much better at communicating offers in a personal and warm way. Research I have undertaken with parents indicates that the offer letter, whilst not a deal-breaker, can play an important role in the mind of an undecided parent.

But what about those who are not lucky enough to be offered a place? Schools need to communicate this bad (and sometimes unexpected) news carefully, with due thought not only for the family concerned but also their reputation within the local community.

Last week, a friend forwarded me an email she had received from a school. They had assessed her younger child but had unfortunately not offered a place. Her older child is on the waiting list. She replied to the rejection letter to find out whether her younger child was even on the waiting list (no information had been provided) and, if so, if the school thought there might be places for her children in the future, given there is often some movement in the weeks after offers go out.The school was absolutely their first choice, but they had other offers to consider, so wanted to be sure where they stood. It was a carefully thought out, polite letter to the Head. The response from the school, in stark contrast, was a standard, impersonal and quite rude sentence via email. Not even a Dear Mr and Mrs, let alone reference to her children by name.

In a world where customer service is now scrutinised, criticised or praised across social media, let alone at dinner parties, you want everyone you come into contact with to say nice things about you, regardless of the outcome of their application. The ramifications of those kind of emails could extend far beyond the disappointment caused to one family. My friend certainly feels far less pre-disposed towards the school she once raved about and whilst she accepts it was possibly not the right school for her children, she is now less likely to recommend it to others than if they had let her down in a more thoughtful way. An even more aggrieved parent may have forwarded the email on to friends, or shared it to Facebook or with Twitter, copying the school in. This is the danger now of not thinking all of your communications through as even your ‘private’ ones may not stay private for long.

So, as your Admissions department plans and writes those rejection letters, think not only about how you would feel as the parent and the child receiving it but also how you want them to feel about you and your school in the future. No one likes bad news, but it it is given in a sympathetic way the blow is more likely to be softened and your reputation remain intact.