Announcing a reduction to your workforce is a daunting and unpleasant challenge for any leader and organisation.
It is even harder if just a couple of months earlier you had promised those same workers that their jobs would be safe.
So how did one CEO who found himself in this uncomfortable situation emerge with his reputation intact as a credible, authentic leader?
And what can others learn from his example?
Edelman, an American PR and marketing firm – the company behind the Edelman Trust Barometer that we have quoted in this media training blog before – announced that it is cutting 390 jobs worldwide as it tries to manage the consequences of the coronavirus crisis.
Additionally, vice presidents and executives at the company will take salary cuts ranging from 5 per cent to 20 per cent.
Somewhat embarrassingly for CEO Richard Edelman, the announcement followed his bold declaration in March that all of his 6,000 employees would be protected during the pandemic.
Not only was the brand in the uncomfortable position of announcing job losses, but it also had the potential to be a particularly awkward ‘told you so’ moment.
So how did he deal with this situation?
Well, he delivered what one of our current working journalist tutors described as a ‘masterful announcement’.
The key to this being such an accomplished message is the language that was used. So, let’s take a look at it.
Mr Edelman described the decision as “heart-breaking” and “gut-wrenching” and went on to say: “Now, in June, we must part ways with talented and wonderful colleagues across the network. This is not a reflection on them, they are our partners and friends, and parting ways with them has been the most difficult decision in my 23 years leading this firm.”
He later added: “For those of you leaving, I am profoundly and deeply sorry. The thought of how this affects you and your loved ones has given me many sleepless nights. My gratitude to you is heartfelt, and you will be deeply missed by me, as well as your colleagues and friends.”
Compare this language to the type we often see when company’s talk about job losses – things like headcount reductions, streamlining, rightsizing, and offboarding.
Mr Edelman’s used everyday language, which makes him come across as a human with feelings and emotions.
And that in turn creates the impression that he cares about his workers and their plight during these challenging times.
This is a crucial lesson for leaders when discussing bad news. If they come across as human and show empathy, they are more likely to emerge with their reputation, and that of their organisation, intact.
Importantly, he also outlined all the actions the company had taken to try and avoid reaching this situation, including ending the use of freelancers, pausing its internship programme and limiting external recruitment.
This is again another crucial feature in delivering bad news, whether it’s job losses or something else. People want to know what steps were taken to try and avoid the situation or what it is doing to recover and prevent it from happening again.
But as much as we liked the way Edelman handled this difficult news, we wouldn’t be doing our job as communication training experts without looking in a little more detail at the original announcement.
Saying that there would not be any layoffs in March sounded bold and reassuring and you have to feel he believed it at the time. But being so publicly confident teed up the possibility of future embarrassment and left the company a hostage to fortune.
And it meant that when there was the need to cut jobs, there was an added narrative of broken promises and red faces – something you might expect a PR expert to be primed to avoid.
My latest weekly blog: what does Edelman's 'volte face' on redundancies mean for the PR giant - and for the wider comms industry?#edelman #corporatecommunications #publicrelations #covid19 https://t.co/700G6OX8TX— dannyrogers2001 (@dannyrogers2001) June 4, 2020
This is something we’ve looked at before in this media training blog and it why we tell delegates on our media training courses to avoid making any statements that may prove difficult to live up to or that depend on circumstances beyond your control.
The media doesn’t forget and these comments will come back to haunt you.
Find out more about our training by videoconference options, including media training crisis mead management, presentation skills and media management.
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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