It Was the Worst of Times – And the Best of Comms

[Our Perspective by Michael Voss and Jennifer Rock]

We recently published a perspective on one of the most difficult projects a communicator can face – doing a good job delivering bad news about layoffs. Given the complexity and difficulty of the topic – not to mention the volume of readership and commentary the article garnered – we decided to take a second, deeper dive. Specifically, how can you weave a layoff communications plan into a larger, ongoing narrative about your company’s vision and strategy? In our experience, the best method is to approach the work in phases.

A Case Study
In 2008 we were working at the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer, sailing along with a popular CEO, strong domestic business performance, promising international expansion plans and a share price in the mid $50s. Until the U.S. financial markets melted down.

Phase I: Survive and thrive
With consumer spending plummeting, our senior executive team quickly developed a blueprint to weather the near-catastrophic, short-term financial impacts of the crash, with an eye toward maintaining the company’s market leadership position in the long run. This new business plan included a host of actions to eliminate costs and reduce spending, while protecting the strategic investments deemed necessary for the future.

Fortunately we had built a strong, flexible Communications team, because the unstable market conditions and sweeping changes within the company required us to toss out most of our current priorities and goals. Together, we rallied to create a communications strategy – dubbed the Survive and Thrive initiative – anchored to the new business plan.

Our comm plan contained a series of interrelated tactics, leveraging not only our standard “push” vehicles, but also the suite of online and in-person channels we had previously developed to foster dialogue among employees and executives. All of our initial activities were designed to help employees understand the state of the economy and company, and what steps were being taken to navigate this new environment.

At this point there were no definitive plans for layoffs. But we knew a workforce reduction was inevitable, so we focused on setting the appropriate internal context for employees, continually espousing the themes of ambiguity and constant change as part of the new normal. Thank goodness we did.

Phase II: Voluntary and involuntary departures
Soon afterward, we were tapped to discuss the need to reduce payroll expenses by tens of millions of dollars, and we were blown away by the plan the company had developed. In an effort to provide employees with a measure of choice, the senior execs and HR team had created a voluntary departure package that would be implemented before any involuntary layoffs were executed. In short, employees ready and willing to leave would receive a generous departure package – a 200-350% increase from the standard severance payouts, depending on an employee’s role and level. Knowing not enough people would voluntarily depart to meet the payroll-reduction target, the company also increased its standard severance plan by 100-275% – benefits that would apply to those who were involuntarily released after the voluntary program had run its course.

This generous and transparent approach was in many ways a gift to us communicators. At the same time, it came with its own challenges. The details of three severance plans (the original, the enhanced involuntary and the voluntary) had to be clearly communicated so employees could make informed decisions. Eligibility requirements for the plans varied based on an employee’s role, location and business unit. Managers needed answers for the deluge of questions they were sure to get, and coaching on how to handle the delicate of nature of some employees happily choosing to leave with a richer package than employees who wanted to stay but nonetheless would be relieved of their duties.

We kicked off the entire program with simultaneous department meetings at company headquarters. A video featuring our CEO and two other key execs was used to set the context. Then each department’s senior leader – live in the room – articulated the details of the program, assisted by a leader’s guide, PowerPoint slides and a handout for attendees. Soon afterward we began a regular drumbeat of FAQ communication and information/listening sessions with employees – providing updates and more background on the critical minutiae of the complex severance plans.

Phase III: Re-engage
As the dust began to settle around the departures, we kicked the third phase of our comm strategy into gear, deploying a variety of tactics to help employees move past the difficulty of the previous few months and focus on the future. We highlighted financial metrics that showed the business was stabilizing. We rolled out the updated business plan for the new fiscal year. We encouraged employees to share stories (online and in key leadership meetings) about why they stayed, and why they remained bullish on the company’s future.

We also launched a new tactic, aimed at a very small internal audience: senior executives. It began as a monthly report that helped execs keep tabs on key constituents and activities. Our PR partners assembled a snapshot of external coverage and commentary, which we balanced with an internal landscape – quotes, themes and questions we were hearing from employees. We also used the report to remind them of our communications guiding principles, themes and messages for leaders at all levels, and a monthly calendar highlighting key communications activities. It was so well-received that the execs soon asked to receive it bi-weekly.

While the Great Recession was the obvious catalyst for this strategy, we believe many of the lessons and approaches outlined above can apply to the day-to-day communications in your organization. To name just a few:

A strong dialogue program is always important, in good times or bad. Trusted relationships with HR, PR, Legal and other internal teams can only increase the effectiveness of your efforts. Always look for ways to provide senior execs with insights into the things they can’t see. And strive for transparency, knowing full well some information always needs to remain confidential.


*This article was adapted from the ©ROCKdotVOSS presentation of the same name. The full case study is available as an in-person speech/presentation for trade association meetings or individual organizations, or as a web/teleconference for smaller or geographically distributed teams. Contact us for availability.


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