Layoffs, furloughs, freezing of benefits and salary cuts are the measures implemented by organisations in response to the pandemic-induced economic Armageddon. Each measure has set off a certain impact, but how these actions are perceived largely depend on the way they are communicated.
No industry or enterprise has been spared - from blue-chips such as Boeing and BP to Silicon Valley giants like Airbnb and startups like Bird, to advertising and PR powerhouses Publicis and Edelman. But the way some of these prestigious brands are handling communication in response to the tsunami of redundancies leaves much to be desired.
Companies reactively releasing statements to vehemently deny reports of upcoming mass layoffs, only to admit a week or two later that they plan to ask thousands go. Then you have industry leaders coming out in public, proactively, to pronounce that no redundancies would be made as result of the pandemic, only for reality to kick in days later when staff are asked to leave.
Such reactions are likely to dent the reputational “capital” of these organisations on many fronts.
Their remaining employees will find it difficult to trust what the company tells them about most things. And why should they, after having to wave goodbye to countless colleagues who had falsely believed their jobs were safe, because the company had intentionally told them so. Until the narrative changed...
What about the clients of these companies? If it is so easy for them to lie to their own people, then what would stop them using other lies in their dealings with customers?
How would the markets and investors react? How could they possibly place their faith and monies behind companies caught out lying so unabashedly, without ever pausing to consider the consequences their actions could set off?
Let’s stick with some values
Transparency has to be the best policy. Yet, for various reasons, it is a fact this is a rare attribute in today’s corporate world. But where you can’t be wholly transparent due to circumstances, one thing you can’t afford to do is lie, willingly.
So how should companies use communications, to their benefit, when the decision to proceed with mass layoffs has been cast? While there is no one approach, these points should be in the communications playbooks of companies.
• Inform those affected immediately, and preferably at the same time, where possible. This is where HR needs to lead the communication and make sure they follow standard protocol pertaining to employee relations. Timing is important, especially when different time zones are involved.
While impacted staff in Australia get the news before their impacted colleagues on the US West Coast, the one day gap won’t cause much harm or uncertainty amongst employees.
• Control the message. Once you have informed employees, be ready with an official statement about the layoffs, express sympathy for those affected and adequately explain the reasons that led to this decision. Avoid skirting the issue.
• Reinforce social media listening and extend community management shifts. Mass layoffs will lead many ex-employees to vent on social media channels. It is crucial to make a conscious attempt to monitor all comments and steer conversation to your own channels to help gain control of the message. Be empathetic but firm in the responses, where appropriate.
• Don’t rush into denying media reports. The media will usually find out before the inhouse corporate communications teams. It would be highly unlikely that a media outlet would publish an article about mass layoffs unless they had it confirmed by a number of credible sources, usually through leaks.
• If contacted by journalists to provide comment, never deny nor confirm and indicate that an official statement may be provided in response to the enquiry if the company deems it necessary. If you are of the impression that it may earn some positive publicity by going on record unprompted to say the company won’t be making any layoffs, think again. This will backfire as soon as your CFO produces the profit-and-loss statement.
This is just one of the reasons why corporate communications needs a seat in the boardroom. Because in the same vein CEOs need feedback from CFOs, HR, marketing, compliance and legal, they also need the expertise of seasoned communicators to provide advice on how each decision needs to be communicated.
- George Kotsolios is Managing Partner at Leidar MENA and author of “Back to the Future of Marketing: Provolve or Perish”. Follow him on Twitter @georgekotsolios.