Tag Archives: bad news messages

Bonus Case Study: Pesky Clutch Problems Plague Harley-Davidson

[Instructors: The following case study can be used for a discussion using the questions below. We also provide a writing assignment (and sample solution) that encourages critical thinking about audience awareness and choosing an organizational strategy for a message.]

Founded in 1903, Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Motor Company is an iconic manufacturer of motorcycles with a loyal global following. The company also sells branded merchandise and apparel. Although most recently motorcycle sales have been trending down, Harley-Davidson is financially healthy, with a net income of $114.1 million on revenue of $1.27 billion in 2016.[1]

Manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson must ensure the safety of their products and fix any manufacturing defects. It’s the right thing to do. Customers correctly expect flawless operation of their pricey vehicles, and the organization’s brand reputation is at stake.

Also, consumers today are wielding a lot of power. In a 24/7 news cycle, social media outcries spread fast and carry far. This is why organizations err on the side of caution and issue recalls to repair their products and thus prevent potential injury as well as costly litigation.

What? Another Recall?

Owners of certain 2015-2016 HD models have had problems with the hydraulic clutch right after purchasing their bikes. The company then quickly issued a voluntary recall to correct the problem.

However, the hydraulic clutch engagement system keeps causing trouble. This time Harley-Davidson did not recall its vehicles, but it did decide to offer a free inspection by an authorized HD dealer, and, more important, to extend the factory limited warranty on the hydraulic clutch engagement system for five years. This warranty stays with the bike even if it is sold. The company wrote a letter to the owners of the affected motorcycles asking them to visit their authorized dealer to address the lingering problem.

Let’s Talk Strategy

[If you share the scenario with students, remove this discussion and address strategy in class.]

Is this a straightforward bad-news message? Does the pain the negative news might cause suggest the writer use a buffer and an indirect approach? The answer: This scenario requires tact but the approach should be direct. Despite the clutch problems, the audience is loyal to the brand. The writer has something to offer that is likely to offset any negative feelings. The goal is to prompt the reader to take action and bring the bike in for an inspection. A secondary goal is to maintain the customers’ goodwill.

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Why did Harley-Davidson choose to write a letter to the owners of the affected motorcycles?
    Manufacturers know that most people take a letter on paper in their mailbox more seriously than e-mail. An e-mail message might be mistaken for promotion and overlooked in a busy inbox. A letter is tailored to reach its target audience. Because the defect doesn’t rise to the level of a recall, the company doesn’t need to make a public disclosure, risking negative publicity and perceptions of slipping quality.
  2. Why should the letter to the Harley owners be polite but direct?
    Harley-Davidson is not issuing a recall but is providing a remedy to a recurring problem. The issue isn’t likely to cause much pain other than being a minor inconvenience. The company is showing good faith as it stands by its products. Harley-Davidson has something to offer that the recipient of the letter will ultimately like and that will compensate for any disappointment.

Task. Write a letter that will be sent to all Harley-Davidson customers affected by the clutch problems. Address it to Ed Townsend, 1654 Wigwam Parkway, City of Henderson, NV 89011.

Solution: Harley Davidson Letter

[1] Bomey, N. (2016, October 18). Harley-Davidson plans cuts as sales, profit fall. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com

Bad-News Assignment

Delivering bad news has five goals: (a) Explaining clearly and completely (b) Projecting a professional image (c) Conveying empathy as well as sensitivity (d) Being fair and (e) Maintaining friendly relations.

This assignment will allow you to put the indirect vs. direct strategy to delivering bad news to the test. You will select one of the two scenarios below, and write both an indirect and direct bad-news letter using the principles outlined in the textbook. You will then show both letters to three different people asking them which approach they believe is most effective and why. Next write a 3-5-page paper relating your findings and finally your assessment. At least two of your three people should be working professionals. One person can be a friend or family member.

This task will give you practice with formulating bad-news messages and assessing people’s reactions to indirect vs. direct strategies. Choose either scenario and complete the required tasks. The assignment is worth 75 points (15 points for each letter (inductive and deductive), 10 points each for feedback (three people) and 15 points for your summary.

Scenario #1 – Rising Costs Hit Bakery Deliveries

As the owner of La Boulangerie Bakery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you have a devoted clientele savoring your delicacies. Your salty caramel cupcakes offer an irresistible salty-sweet flavor combination using fleur de sel crystals hand harvested from the pristine seas off Brittany, France. These salt granules complement the sweet buttery caramel that flavors both the cake and frosting. Although your cupcakes are a trendy hit, you also feature delicious cakes, squares, cookies, and breads. Your bakery has a medium-sized storefront; however, most of your business comes from supplying local restaurants and coffee shops with your tantalizing treats. You own two trucks that make deliveries to customers throughout the Baton Rouge metropolitan area.

Although LaBoulangerie is financially successful, rising costs have severely undercut your profits over the past few months. You know that you are not the only business owner dealing with rising prices. Many of your suppliers have raised their prices over the past year. Specifically, the higher price of wheat and sugar has resulted in a drastic increase in your production costs. Previously, you did not charge for deliveries made to your wholesale clients. However, you now feel that you have no choice but to add a delivery charge for each order to cover your increased costs and the rising price of gas.

Your Task:

  • As the owner of La Boulangerie Bakery, write a bad-news (indirect) letter to your wholesale clients in which you announce a $20 charge per delivery. Try to think of a special offer to soften the blow. Address the first letter to Mr. Emil Broussard, Café Broussard, 2013 West Lee Drive, Baton Rouge, LA 70820.
  • In contrast, write a direct style letter to your wholesale clients
  • Choose three people and show them both letters. Ask them which letter they feel is most effective, and why.
  • Summarize, assess, and report your findings.

Source: Guffey-Loewy, Essentials of Business Communication, 10e (2016, Cengage Learning).

Scenario #2 – Home Depot Delivers, But it’s Bad News

On September 8, 2014, Home Depot experienced a widespread security breach in its payment data systems, which affected customers using payment cards at U.S. and Canadian stores. The malware used in the breach was eliminated on September 18 when Home Depot completed a major payment security update that provided enhanced encryption of payment data at the point of sale in retail stores. This enhanced encryption offers significant new protection for customers.

Home Depot does not believe that either debit card personal identification numbers (PINs) or checks were compromised. Further, no evidence suggests that stores in Mexico or on-line shoppers at HomeDepot.com were affected.

Home Depot will be offering affected customers free identify protection services for one year to those customers who used payment cards at a U.S. or Canadian Hope Depot store between April 1 through September 19, 2014. A hotline was set up to answer customer questions and address customer concerns: 1-800-HOMEDEPOT

Your Task:

  • As the public relations manager, you have been given the responsibility of customer communication on this issue. Determine the communication channel (letter or e-mail) you will use and write both an indirect and direct letter/e-mail to customers in which you communicate the situation.
  • In contrast, write a direct style letter to your wholesale clients
  • Choose three people and show them both letters/e-mails. Ask them which message they believe is most effective, and why.
  • Summarize, assess, and report your findings.

Source: Guffey-Loewy, Business Communication: Process & Product, 8e, 2015

Home Depot Delivers—But It’s Bad News

Recently the Home Depot experienced a widespread security breach and was required to disclose the news to its customers. Delivering bad news requires deft writing and analytic skills. Read the below e-mail to Home Depot’s customers. Then answer the questions following the e-mail to judge just how well the “world’s largest home improvement retailer” did.



Dear Valued Customer,

As you may have heard, on September 8, 2014, we confirmed that our payment data systems have been breached, which could potentially impact customers using payment cards at our U.S. and Canadian stores. On September 18, 2014, we confirmed that the malware used in the breach has been eliminated from our U.S. and Canadian stores and that we have completed a major payment security project that provides enhanced encryption of payment data at point of sale throughout our U.S. stores, offering significant new protection for customers.

There is no evidence that debit PIN numbers were compromised or that checks were impacted. Additionally, there is no evidence that the breach has impacted stores in Mexico or customers who shopped online at HomeDepot.com.

We are offering customers who used a payment card at a Home Depot store in 2014, from April on, 12 months of free identity protection services, including credit monitoring, beginning on September 19, 2014. We apologize for the frustration and anxiety this may cause you and we thank you for your patience during this time.

For more information, please visit our website where you’ll find frequently asked questions, helpful tips, our Important Customer Notice, and information about how to take advantage of the free identity protection services, including credit monitoring. Should you have questions regarding the authenticity of this email or any additional questions over the coming days and weeks, please call 1-800-HOMEDEPOT.

We hope this information is useful and we appreciate your continued support.

The Home Depot


Critical Thinking Questions and Activities

  1. The message above was sent in an e-mail. Why do you think Home Depot decided to use e-mail as its channel rather than a print letter? Would a print letter have been more effective? Why or why not?
  1. Which organizational strategy does Home Depot’s negative message use? Why was it chosen, and what benefits does it offer?
  1. Why was a comma used after the greeting rather than a colon?
  1. The second sentence contains 53 words. Could the sentence have been revised for easier comprehension? Do you think the long sentence illustrates a careful choice or careless writing? Can you find other phrases or wording that would benefit from a careful revision?
  1. Delivering bad news has five goals: (a) Explaining clearly and completely (b) Projecting a professional image (c) Conveying empathy and sensitivity (d) Being fair (e) Maintaining friendly relations. Using the e-mail, identify where you see evidence of each goal. Then, in groups or as a class, discuss your findings.


Note to instructors: If you’d like to share our revised version with your students, write to Dana at info@bizcombuzz.com.