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Lessons from Airbnb in communicating bad news

The global economy is in turmoil. Without a blueprint for how to navigate it, and zero clarity on when the world will return to “normal”, we are seeing corporations across the world get into trouble, or economise, like never before.

As a result, the last few weeks have seen several of the world’s most notable brands layoff huge numbers of people on a scale previously unheard of. The most recent casualties have come from the likes of Uber, TripAdvisor, Virgin Atlantic, Boeing and Under Armour — all perceived pre-pandemic as largely infallible.

For those leading brand communications while businesses go through challenging times, the key question is: how do you preserve reputation when all the business has to share is bad news?

This week Airbnb had terrible news to share as it decided to make 25% of its total global workforce redundant. The news went public when the brand published a copy of the email that co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky sent to all staff.

Despite the scale of the layoffs being far greater than those we’ve seen so far in this crisis, the resounding reaction was respect — from both external commentators and the company’s own staff. It was incredible to see current and soon-to-be departed Airbnb employees alike singing the firms’ praises across LinkedIn and wishing one another well, using the hashtag #AirFam.

For those communications leaders who may find themselves needing to handle bad brand news, here are four things they should learn from Airbnb:

Put your internal audience first: All it took to share the news with the world in a respectful way was evidence of a perfectly composed email to staff — there were no big interviews lined up to defend the decision or corporate statements. In times of crisis, as long as you get the internal comms right and prioritise your people, the external reputation will follow. Get straight to the point: It’s a long email, but by the fourth line Brian Chesky states he is making staff redundant. By getting the crux of the news out of the way first, further detail is important context rather than corporate filler.

“When you’ve asked me about layoffs, I’ve said that nothing is off the table. Today, I must confirm that we are reducing the size of the Airbnb workforce.”

Show the business has a strategy: One of the best things about how Airbnb communicated its layoffs was that it was put in the context of it’s long term business strategy. No investor or prospective candidate wants to get involved with a business that doesn’t have an idea of how it will get out of trouble, but one that has a game plan will set minds at ease for the future.

“This means that we will need to reduce our investment in activities that do not directly support the core of our host community. We are pausing our efforts in Transportation and Airbnb Studios, and we have to scale back our investments in Hotels and Lux.”

Get the tone right: When bad news that affects your people, it can be easy to over-egg the empathetic sentiment, but Airbnb got this so very right in Chesky’s email. The first couple of paragraphs express his “sadness” in making the “difficult decision” but from then on he sets out in clear and factual terms how the company will help those being let go.

Despite all the steps Airbnb took to handle this news with care, the brand’s communications haven’t been entirely perfect. The day after the company’s layoff news, comments from an interview conducted with Chesky the previous week appeared in the FT, claiming that European bookings were rising; “The recovery is better than what we had forecast even two weeks ago,” he was quoted as saying.

Although a thinly veiled attempt to restore investor confidence following criticism of Chesky’s leadership and ahead of a rumoured IPO, several outlets still picked up on this in their coverage of the layoffs and raised questions over whether such huge staff cuts were really necessary.

Ultimately when it comes to bad news, nobody wins. But communications leaders that can deploy a blend of consideration for employees, customers and investors will be able to take out the sting and keep long term reputation intact.


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