© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
The press doesn't care much about YOUR deadlines, they care about theirs. If your deadline is more important than theirs, you lose.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Editor's Note: I had just finished writing the human resources-related case history for this issue when a "thread" about downsizing started in PRSA's free PPCONLINE email discussion group. Into that discussion came Mark Towhey, a previous contributor to "Crisis Manager" and one of Canada's top crisis management pros. His post was, with almost no editing, already a complete article and, within hours, he gave me permission to print it as such. Providing this issue with a theme -- the highly sensitive management of communications regarding personnel matters.
Eight Things to Remember During Downsizing
by G. Mark Towhey
1. Communication is not just talk.
All communicators know that 90+ percent of communication is non-verbal. Some of the most influential communications have little or nothing to do with anything you'll touch as a "professional communicator". Undoubtedly you and your executive management team will be very concerned over what you say -- making sure every message is just right, every comma placed just so. Your job can't end there, however, if your company is to succeed. Part of your strategic function during times of downsizing (and all other times, for that matter, but especially critical now) is to be ever vigilant: to make sure through all the business discussions that the "do" matches the "say." If you say people are important, how are you showing this to be true? If you say you'll take care of people, do your severance, retraining, and benefits packages really take care of people?
2. Remember the survivors.
Where your company has been able to pick and choose who goes and who stays, you have probably chosen to retain your superior performers. Don't forget them during the downsizing turmoil. They will probably be just as shocked as those who are leaving. No doubt, their first thoughts are "how does this affect me?" and "am I going next?" Productivity will drop during this period, that's a given. How well you can communicate with them, and make them more comfortable, confident and effective, will determine just how far productivity drops and when/if it recovers. Expect to need special communication programs targeting these people.
3. Everything you do counts.
You've got to treat the departing employees well -- not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the only way to keep your survivors. Everything you do and say to those departing has an enormous impact on the survivors. Trying to cut costs without affecting productivity? Don't go cheap on the benefits for the departing folks -- that will have an instant impact on the "there but for the Grace of God" survivors. If they feel that the terminated folks are treated poorly, they'll all start looking for other work to get ahead of the curve -- because they know they could be next. If they see the dearly departed were well taken care of, they'll feel much more comfortable with their own futures. Both these alternatives have predictable impacts on productivity.
4. Establish a "Covenant" with your people.
Rumours will be rampant. I believe that rumours are some kind of mysterious, autoconceptual beast: Evacuate a room, seal it tight, pump it to vacuum and leave it alone for two days; when you come back and look inside, there'll be at least one rumour alive and well in there. They can't be stopped. What you can do, however, are two things. Most importantly, you should, early on, establish a covenant with your people -- a covenant with two unbreakable rules:
First, tell them (honestly!) that everything they hear from you will be fact. If they hear it from you, they can be confident it will be 100% verified fact. Then live by that rule. Do not speculate, do not hypothesize, do not wonder, do not "what if." This is far harder than it sounds. I know, most communicators believe they live this rule everyday. But, fact is, in my experience, 90 per cent of people simply do not understand the difference between a fact and a conclusion. This covenant will be annoying for you -- and your audience. They will want you to speculate, demand you to. You will want to do so in order to put down rumours and quell discomfort. DON'T. Tell them again, that you speak facts. It will save your bacon in the long run.
Second, tell them that you will communicate any FACT that will directly affect them as soon as it is known, directly. They will hear lots of rumours and gossip -- but if something is FACTUAL, you will move heaven and earth to make sure YOU tell them as soon as it is known.
This process has proven highly successful for me. In one really challenging situation, we were faced with managing relationships with thousands of family members, spread across more than seven time zones, of soldiers engaged in a combat zone overseas. When bad things happened in theatre, the newswires and rumour mill function at the speed of light. There is no way we could have responded to 2-3,000 telephone inquiries with the tiny staff we had. Instead, we made and kept this covenant and it's the only reason why we succeeded. Families understood two things: that anything we said would be factual, and that if it affected them or their loved one, they'd hear it from us first. It worked. When soldiers were hurt, or killed, the affected families heard from us as soon as we could verify the facts -- and we verified every detail. Likewise, when family members were injured or died, and soldiers needed to be informed. We didn't say someone was dead until we were talking live by telephone with the doctor who pronounced him dead. We were very successful. As much as families often wanted more information, they respected our policy of facts only -- and they trusted and believed what we told them.
This covenant has worked just as well in the business and downsizing arenas. The only major challenge is when your executives have already established a reputation for being fast and loose with facts. In this case, the factbroker may have to be someone without a track record.
5. Fight rumours directly.
The second aspect of rumour fighting is the direct attack. Keep your ear to the ground and develop good relationships with well placed people. As soon as serious rumours appear, attack them directly -- with FACTS.
We used this tactic successfully in a never-ending downsizing, downsizing again, downsizing some more and then out right close-down situation. In this case, pre-Intra/Internet, we established two formal publications, one of which was the "official" source of facts, etc. On the back page of each issue, we ran a column called "rumour net". Each issue, we collected and printed all the significant rumours we could unearth -- and the real facts of each situation. In some cases, the facts clearly contradicted the rumors. In other cases, the rumours were speculative and we merely outlined the facts and pointed out where no facts yet existed. (e.g. a rumour that a certain building was going to be demolished, the fact was that we had decided on the fate of 2 out of 20 buildings and the rumoured building was not among them. We were considering a number of options, and spelled out broadly what these were, and no decision had been made on this building at this time.)
6. Think like people.
At the end of the day, and at its beginning, you're dealing with people -- and threatening their livelihood. Understand this. People will respond like people. Understand their learning curve. Don't hide information, but don't throw it all in their faces on day one and expect them to understand it. When you first announce a downsizing, understand that the only message that counts is the one that answers the question "do I still have a job?" Nothing else you say will register. Detailed information must come later, and repeatedly. Allow sufficient time for grief, confusion and emotion. In every situation I've been involved in, even when the employees "knew it was coming" intellectually, it was still a gut-blow emotionally. Do not underestimate the impact of bad news. Don't lie or use weasel words, just give them time to come to grips with it.
7. Do the right thing.
People will not be happy -- don't try to use words that make a bad thing sound better. But, do ensure that everything is done -- even if it's expensive -- to treat people right. This investment in compassion, I can assure you, will yield a direct and positive return. A few dollars spent now to ensure people are well taken care of will avoid tenfold expense later as you try to hold things together as your best performers leave before they think they'll be pushed, and you face public displeasure that attrits your market value.
8. If you need help to do it right, now's the time to get it.
Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. If you don't have the right people to put things together in time, get more people -- there are lots of consultants, like us, all over who have experience doing this and could help you. You only get one chance to do something the first time -- and the first time counts.
Mark Towhey is president of Toronto-based TOWHEY Consulting Group Inc., Leaders in Strategic Influence: Communication, Crisis Management, Human Resources. More info at www.towhey.com. Contact: 416.737.9178 or email to email@example.com.
A Delicate Discharge: Firing Senior Management
by Jonathan Bernstein
Firing someone from a senior-level position always creates "news," internally and externally. If there is blatant cause, then does the organization have some liability? If there is no blatant cause, how do you explain it and move on smoothly? How do you explain, to all of your important audiences, what this means to THEM in a manner that is reassuring? All while complying with very strict legal considerations regarding privacy and confidentiality? The following is based on an actual situation, but significantly altered to preserve client confidentiality.
A large and mostly popular chamber of commerce was officially led by a board of directors but paid a professional association manager to serve as its president. A little more than a year ago, the very popular former president retired after serving for more than two decades. Via a selection process that was, in hindsight, too rushed and markedly flawed, the board of directors hired Mark Smith to be its new president, giving him a three-year contract.
Mark and the majority of board members, it turns out, were not even remotely a "fit" for each other. Smith was aloof and dictatorial, the board members were mostly "people people" who liked their president to give them a lot of personal attention, as had Smith's predecessor. Most of his sizeable staff did not enjoy the cold style, even if they had to admit that he got things done, while a few key people on staff really liked him. Important community contacts, for the most part, also found Smith's style interfered with smooth relations -- but, again, he had some fans in the community.
Smith didn't do anything actionably wrong, from a legal viewpoint -- but the board wanted him out, and before his contract was up. Everyone knew that, if a buyout took place (a legal option according to Smith's contract), at high cost, chamber members would be infuriated by the cost and Smith's supporters might make counter-accusations, internally and externally.
Smith was intractable, he didn't want any "early out" compromise for fear of how it would reflect on him. The board was adamant in wanting him out but realized that they could be in both legal trouble and "look dumb" if the situation was not properly managed. They brought in a labor and employment attorney to guide their actions -- and he brought in a crisis communications pro to help prepare the board for internal and external reaction.
Crisis communications activities included:
- Discussing, with legal counsel and the board, the internal and external PR implications of various possible outcomes, projecting how different audiences might respond. This helped the attorney and the board weigh the risks versus gains of different strategies.
- Helping the board and legal counsel come up with the best ways to word any agreement in order to lower its external news value.
- Conducting some confidential interviews with key staff members to get their impressions of the situation and to learn what was currently in the "rumor mill."
- Creating key messages keyed to various possible outcomes ranging from an involuntary buyout of Smith's contract to Smith voluntarily retiring early for certain incentives. Key messages were divided into "general" and "audience specific" categories, knowing that employees, for example, would have some concerns different than those of members.
- Helping the board create a "rapid communication" system for getting news of the final decision to all their important audiences, internal and external, before they "read it in the paper" or heard it via the rumor-mill.
- Training to board members to optimize their contact with the media and all other important audiences.
The outcome: the "final deal" was one of those perfect compromises, one that didn't completely satisfy anyone but which also didn't break the bank. Thanks to the effective combination of legal and PR strategy and tactics, it drew almost no external attention and was very well received by the vast majority of important audience members.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: What are the restrictions on what can be said, publicly, about a personnel matter?
A: Good thing Bernstein Crisis Management is now owned by a law firm! I asked Charles Herf, labor and employment attorney at the Phoenix office of our parent firm, Quarles & Brady, to provide the following information:
"Employers need to exercise extreme sensitivity regarding legal and human issues in any public statement regarding disciplined or terminated employees, especially in high-profile situations. Liability considerations as to defamation, wrongful interference with future employment opportunities, confidentiality issues and even discrimination may rear their ugly heads if the situation is not handled properly. Public sector employers have additional due process and policy issues to contemplate.
"Caution should be exercised to be certain that privacy rights and rights in an employment agreement are not violated in any public (workplace or community) statements. Many states have statutory guidelines on references to future employers which, if followed, provide protections for good faith statements made in response to an inquiry concerning former employees.
"In addition to legal issues, there should be a concern for the impact on current employees and even future applicants for employment. These are all people concerned about how they will be perceived and treated in the work place. A well-prepared game plan involving human resources, experienced employment counsel and a issues management expert is the best course of action to minimize the chance of subsequent litigation."
Add to that legal perspective the considerations addressed in this issue's two articles, above, and you will be well-equipped to sensitively handle HR-related public relations.
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