‘Softening the blow’ or burying bad news? How one brand announced 900 store closures

Let’s say your business was closing some of its offices or shops, shutting down a service or discontinuing a product?

How would you communicate the bad news?

All brands have to tell bad news at some point. But not all do it well.

I stumbled across a press release about store closures last week.

It came from CVS Health, one of the largest pharmacy chains in the US (don’t ask how I find some of the subjects for this media training blog).

Now, if I told you the company put out a press release excitedly entitled ‘CVS Health announces steps to accelerate omnichannel health strategy’, you would probably assume it was something dull about its online presence.

But despite the ridiculous use of ‘omnichannel’ in the headline (the type of jargon that would usually cause me to reach for the headache pills), I persevered.

And buried at the bottom of a series of announcements of job changes at the top of the organisation and ‘strategic reviews’, I found something newsworthy.

More than 360 words into the release, the chain announced it was planning to close 900 shops over the next three years as it looks to create new store formats as part of a strategy to make "health care more affordable, accessible and convenient for consumers".

“As part of this initiative, CVS Health will reduce store density in certain locations and close approximately 300 stores a year for the next three years,” it said.

To put that in perspective, the figure represents about a tenth of its outlets. So, it is a pretty significant announcement.

And, unsurprisingly, it generated plenty of media coverage.

US chain CVS closing 900 drugstores to focus on health services BBC News

CVS is closing 900 stores CNN

CVS to close about 900 stores over next three years, as it shifts to digital strategy CNBC

 

As you can see, the focus was clearly on the store closures. 

So, you have to ask why the company left the newsworthy part of its announcement until the end.

I read some commentary on this story that said, “CVS’ messaging offers a textbook example of sharing the news.”

It added: “The closing of locations, framed as “reducing store density in certain locations,” is only mentioned in the release after an explanation of how the brand will restructure its retail business. This softens the blow, sharing progress and solutions first to underscore a deeper commitment to workers and customers.”

This is not a tactic or advice you would get on our crisis communication or media training courses.

People - CVS customers - don’t care about boardroom structures. They want to know if their nearest branch is going to survive. If it is, they want to know what it might look like and offer. And, if it isn’t, what this means for how they collect their prescriptions, and the people who work there.

And this has to be the focus of the announcement and any media interviews given on the subject.

“Softening the blow” sounds like burying or hiding bad news to me. And that is not a strategy we could recommend.

A better approach is to be upfront about the store closures and the reasons behind them, and then explain how the changes will benefit consumers and the business. 

Another explanation is that the press release was intended for an investor audience, rather than a consumer one. The fact the financials and a contact for the investor relations department appear at the bottom of the release indicates this could be the case. 

So, even though the company has called it a press release, perhaps it was more concerned with investor reaction than what their customers felt. 

How you communicate with that audience is vital. But that press release was picked up by mainstream media in the US and beyond and those investors will see the media coverage the company is generating. And that has the potential to impact whether they invest more or withdraw their investment.

I was discussing the story with a former colleague whose trusted brains I sometimes pick for the blogs. He said the CVS approach to this story is dangerous and one that could see the media "rip brands apart".  

Ultimately, any journalist covering the story - and who gets to the bottom of the press release - will focus on the store closures. So, why not be more upfront about it, whoever the intended audience is? 

It may help you avoid the media carrying reputationally bruising analysis such as the quote included from GlobalData in the BBC story that said: "CVS has neglected stores for far too long and has pushed some of them into the downward spiral of irrelevance".

 

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I should say the press release did go on to briefly mention what support the company would be offering to staff working at the stores set to close.

“The company is committed to offering impacted colleagues roles in other locations or different opportunities as part of its overall workforce strategy,” it said.

That’s a start.

But on our crisis communications courses, we would tell delegates that brands need to go further.

There are human consequences to this decision, and the media is already speculating about the scale of potential job losses. One report said: "Even without exact numbers, it is reasonable to predict that several thousand workers will lose their jobs every year over the next three years."

That's a worrying situation for workers and their families, and it needs to be met with empathy in the press release. 

Karen Lynch, the president and CEO of CVS, had put her name to several quotes in the press release. But she didn’t speak about how the people who work for her might be feeling. Or, for that matter, how her customers could be feeling.

And for me, she needed to show she cares.

She could have said something like: “Decisions like this impact people, and I know this will be an unsettling and upsetting time for some of our colleagues and customers. I want our customers to know that we are putting in place measures to help them get their medicine in a more convenient and modern way. And we will be doing everything we can to find any affected team members roles in other locations or different opportunities.”

And Ms Lynch, or someone else senior with recent media training, should have been available for media interviews to help get that human warmth and compassion across. It would also show visible leadership and help get the benefits of the new strategy across. 

Store and office closures, together with decisions to end a product or service, are rarely unforeseen. And that leaves plenty of opportunity to get the messaging right.

Trying to bury this sort of news can be a hard pill to swallow and can easily lead to organisations facing longer in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Find out more about planning for a crisis by downloading your copy of our free eBook.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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