12.15.2008

No news is bad news

"From what we’ve heard,” said an outdoor industry exec to me this morning. “It’s a rare company (that hasn’t reorganized recently). And if they haven’t, they should probably have their head examined.”

Judging by the number of LinkedIn and Facebook requests coming in, I think that person was spot on.

Unfortunately, if you're older than a decent bottle of scotch, then you've been through this before.

My personal PR dance with downsizing dates back to the final puff of the dot-com bubble (spring, 2000). As the freshly minted Emissary of the Buzz, my new hire bonus was a single round of "hey, look how much money we just raised" PR followed by 13 months of periodic bloodletting. Good times.

I kept a work journal back in those days (sort of like a blog, except it was written with "paper" and a "ball point pen." Check Wikipedia), and waxed long and poetic on that first downsizing.

That cut stung for a couple reasons. Primarily because it was deep and harsh. But also because it was a surprise.

I never got used to it, but I did embrace the reality that downsizing is just as natural as rapid growth. Every company believes it’ll never happen to them. But guess what? It happens to everybody.

* What's the point of downturn PR? The primary goal of PR in a downturn is to embrace the opportunity to fill a vacuum. Namely, if you don't provide a story about your brand, someone else will. In PR circles, they call it “getting out in front,” meaning that you’re taking the opportunity to lead, even when it comes to bad news. This can be ginormously helpful in creating confidence and goodwill.

* Who's your daddy? In any reorg communication, take your time on the front end. Think about the news you are considering releasing. Think hard. Consider the reaction of each of your primary audiences: your employees, your business partners and your consumers (via the amplifier of your primary media players). If you’re fortunate enough to have a decent PR team in place, you’ll find that the message required for those three groups is very much the same: short-term stability, long-term stability, and overall stability. Did I mention stability?

* What’s your biggest concern?
Your biggest concern is not that the news will get out there – but rather that there’s more trouble ahead. You need to provide your trusty employees with a good reason to keep their resumes off of Monster.com. You need to explain to your business partners that doing business with you remains a good idea. And you need to provide some real transparency so that the media can trust that what you’re telling them is really all there is to know.

* Consider silence:
After the third round of dot-com layoffs, when the media had stopped covering the death spiral, the CEO asked me if we even needed to do a press release on the next round of cuts. He had a point. Not every layoff requires an official press release. If you didn’t do one when you hired that new division during a season of 125% growth, you might not need one when you let them go. However, since you will need to have a concise document for both business partners and employees, and since the message is likely the same for the media as well, creating an internal press release in advance of any downsizing activity is time well spent. Be prepared. Nothing looks worse in a reorganization than being disorganized.

* Can I trust the media?
Media coverage follows trends, just like everybody else. When things are good, stories of companies on the upswing dominate the news. When things are bad, the deathwatch seems to own the front page. But at the end of the day, the media are looking for the same thing you are … the chance to communicate a compelling anecdote to an eager audience. If you’ve been flying to close to the sun, then … sure … you may find yourself in the company of Eliot Spitzer. But if you truly believe there’s a silver lining in your story, then you owe it to yourself and your company to allow the media to find it.

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