Daily Voice Layoffs: The Lowest of the Low

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst example of employee communication, another one comes along that lowers the bar to new depths.

Daily Voice is the new lowest of the low.

I read this incredible story on Ragan.com, which picked it up from the gossip website Gawker. Daily Voice, a network of micro news sites in the Northeast U.S., is going through some tough times like a lot of companies these days. But unlike most companies, Daily Voice chose to first tease employees with a Friday afternoon promise of “good news” about the company’s future, then engage in a Monday bloodbath of closures and layoffs.

Make no mistake: Daily Voice management flat-out lied to employees. “Monday morning we will share with you the news about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” wrote Chairman Carll Tucker. “The news is good—but you’ll need to sit tight while we finalize our plans. I am pumped about the prospect of working with you to build a great company.”

Management then scheduled individual meetings with employees that were in fact termination notices. Adding insult to injury, the company gave no severance packages.

I’m guessing this mess will stand for many years as the best example of how not to communicate and carry out a layoff. Critiquing it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

So, how should a company share such bad news? I’ve written about layoff communications before, but let me give some tips germane to this example.

First, tell the truth. And don’t lie. These are two separate but equally important points. Hopefully, talk of a forthcoming layoff is not going to be a shocker to your employees because your leaders have regularly communicated how the company is doing and what is at stake. If a layoff is inevitable, explain the business reasons for it and be up front about the process. (This all requires planning, and a communication professional should be part of the layoff planning process.)

Never mislead employees. Never try to gloss over a terrible situation — and layoffs are terrible. There is no getting around it. But business leaders and communicators must be forthcoming and transparent, open and honest.

The best way to communicate that a layoff is coming is face to face. That’s not always possible, depending on how an organization is structured, but it is an option that should be discussed and considered before resorting to other communication methods. In a face-to-face setting, business leaders have a better opportunity to demonstrate sincerity and empathy (through tone of voice and body language) and employees have a chance to ask questions.

Employees should hear about their specific fates in one-on-one meetings with their managers. Without question, this is one of the most difficult things a manager ever has to do, but it is part of the job. Communicators can help prepare managers for these conversations by providing information, resources and even coaching.

Remember the survivors of a layoff. They are the often-forgotten victims of downsizing. A layoff is likely to leave them in sorrow over the loss of co-workers and their confidence in the company’s viability is likely to be shaken. While business leaders should eventually turn employees’ attention forward, there must be a period of time for grieving — yes, grieving. Don’t try to communicate optimism for the future and a forward-focus too soon after a layoff or the surviving employees may not get on board. Can you imagine anyone at Daily Voice today being as pumped up about the future as Chairman Carll Tucker? Not likely.

It’s amazing that in 2013 we hear stories as stupid as what has happened at Daily Voice. With a still-struggling economy and an increasingly competitive marketplace, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for other companies to get it wrong — or to do it right.




How to Find Fulfillment as a Communicator

When I think about the times I’ve felt most fulfilled in my work as a communicator, several situations come to mind. One was when I managed a small team who really seemed to click, thus producing some excellent work for our company. At that same time, I was producing a monthly employee publication that allowed us to try fresh creative things. At other times, I’ve been fulfilled by the things I was learning or the fact that I was growing in my profession.

Hands down, however, the times when I’ve felt most fulfilled is when I knew my work was strategic.

Strategic is one of those words that seems overused but is truly important if you want your work as a communicator to be meaningful — and if you want job security. There is a lot of discussion these days about being creative in our communications, which is also important. In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive; corporate communications can be strategic and also be engaging and even entertaining. But without a connection to our organizations’ strategic goals, our communications are ultimately a waste of resources.

Connecting communications to strategy starts at the outset of an assignment. Ask yourself:

  • What organizational goal are we helping to achieve?
  • What initiative or project are we helping to advance?
  • What are the messages we will communicate, how and to whom?
  • How will we know we’ve succeeded?

That last question is vitally important. Failing to answer it correctly can derail the entire communication plan, or set it off in the wrong direction. I’ve always believed that the measure of success for strategic communication equals the measure of success for the projects and initiatives our communication supports.

I was the sole employee communications resource in a manufacturing facility early in my career. One day a process engineer came to me and said he needed me to join a team that was working on an important project for the plant — a plan to become ISO certified. ISO certification would mean that the plant meets stringent standards for quality assurance and cost effectiveness. Our customers demanded it, so failure was not acceptable.

We could only achieve ISO certification if everyone in the plant — from the engineering staff to support functions to production employees — were prepared for the inspection that was part of the certification process. The need for effective communication throughout the project was obvious.

My goal for the communication plan was not simply to produce information about ISO certification. My goal was ISO certification itself. If my communications reached the right people with the right information through the right channels, the chances of successful certification were much greater than if communications were ineffective. Of course, communication was not the only factor, but as the process engineer made clear to me, it was a critical one.

The plant achieved ISO certification on our first try. Customers were happy and our manufacturing processes were better than before. Clearly, communication had made a difference. That project remains one of the most fulfilling of my career.

What is the real purpose of your communication? Is it tied to a strategic goal for your organization? If it is, you can bet your leaders will take notice.


Bad News About Employee Engagement Spells Opportunity for Communicators

There is a tremendous opportunity for employee communication professionals brewing. Now, perhaps more than any other time in our profession’s history, we can cement our place as a value-added business function by helping our organizations fix a problem that threatens their ability to remain competitive.

I believe one of the greatest challenges facing businesses today is the continued disintegration of employee engagement. I’ve written about this epidemic before and research continues to show that businesses are trying to achieve their goals with employees who are demotivated, disappointed in their work experiences, distrustful of management and who have simply checked out.

The latest study comes from Maritz Motivation Solutions. They surveyed more than 1,000 workers across industries and the findings show a continuation of disengagement that began around 2008 with the U.S. economic crisis. Among the findings:

  • Only 45% of employees said they feel rewarded and recognized by their employers
  • Of those who did not feel recognized for their efforts (which is the majority), 80% did not feel completely satisfied with their job
  • Of those who did not feel recognized, 58% did not feel motivated to go beyond their normal job duties to get the job done
  • 33% identified themselves as employees who just “stay the course” rather than being motivated to make a difference, move the organization forward, or innovate “what’s next.”

A workforce that doesn’t feel recognized or rewarded for a job well done is a lot less likely to exert much effort in their work, the study found. And a disengaged workforce can be deadly to businesses struggling to compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

That translates into real dollars, folks. Companies today need employees who are willing to apply their talents and skills, ready to innovate, and who will go the extra mile to get things done.

Communication can play a crucial role in turning things around. Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between companies that communicate frequently and openly with their employees and the degree to which employees are engaged. Companies with effective communication practices have more engaged workers, and more engaged workers create more successful companies.

We should grab hold of this opportunity and not let it go. This is a real problem that smart leaders should be worried about. We should be getting time on our leaders’ calendars to sit down and talk about how communication can help re-engage employees. If we don’t, we might have a lot fewer employees to communicate with down the road.


A Wise Use of Measurement Dollars

Here’s some good news about communication budgets in organizations: the percentage of communication budgets spent on measurement and evaluation has more than doubled in two years.

According to USC Annenberg’s Generally Accepted Practices (GAP) VII study conducted late last year, the slice of the communication budget pie increased from about 4% in 2009 to nearly 9% in 2011. The study says not only are there more tools available for monitoring communication effectiveness, but organizations seem to be taking a more strategic view of communication.

This is great news for communicators, but it also increases the pressure on us to prove our value to the organizations we serve. Business leaders increasingly expect the communication function to positively affect the bottom line (and there are plenty of recent studies that indicate highly effective communication programs do just that).

One of the wisest investments you can make in communication measurement is to assess what is working and what needs fixing in your communication program. The best way to do that is through a communication audit, which uses quantitative and qualitative research to determine how your communication dollars are best spent.

Along with my partner Katrina Gill of Gill Research, I’ve conducted several communication audits over the years and our clients always tell us the audits were worth the time and resources required to do them. An audit gives you a clear picture of what your employees want and need to know, what your management needs to communicate, and the most effective and efficient ways to communicate with employees. In addition, there is great value in having a third party conduct the assessment. Sometimes communicators can’t see the problems with their communication programs — or the things they’re doing well — because they are too close.

Although communication is viewed much more favorably these days as a strategic business tool, budgets are still pretty tight. It’s a good idea to ensure those limited resources are allocated in ways that make the most sense. That’s what a communication audit can do for you.

If you’d like to talk with me about the communication audit process, send me an email at robert@hollandcomm.com.

Hard Lessons at U.Va.

Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over in his grave.

The University of Virginia, which Mr. Jefferson founded, is in turmoil this week over the board of visitors’ ouster of popular President Teresa Sullivan and the shroud of secrecy surrounding the decision.

It looks increasingly likely that Sullivan will be reinstated following an outcry by students, faculty and alumni, but the damage to U.Va.’s image will take quite some time to heal.

Not surprisingly, the debacle is rich in communication lessons:

  • Not communicating with your organization’s stakeholders is never a good communication strategy. Under the Freedom of Information Act, news media obtained emails circulated among members of the U.Va. board of visitors, which revealed that it hired a Washington D.C. consulting firm for a “strategic communication project” at $750 an hour. The apparent “strategy” was to announce Sullivan’s forced resignation without explaining the reasons behind it. As a former communication consultant (who never earned anything near that hourly rate), I can tell you the board of visitors wasted its money on awful advice.
  • Information will eventually find its way out into the open, so you might as well communicate up front. Rector Helen Dragas, who was the driving force behind Sullivan’s ouster, finally explained the reasons behind it — something she should have done at the outset. “I agree with critics who say that we should have handled the situation better,” she said. “In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way.” That is perhaps the understatement of the entire incident. While certainly there are times when information must be withheld — to comply with regulatory laws, for example — leaders must default to communicating more, not less, with stakeholders. Doing so avoids a lot of problems in the long run.
  • Lack of communication always results in a breakdown of trust. “Trust, one of our core institutional values, has been compromised,” said Carl Zeithaml, the interim president appointed by the board of visitors. Trust between leaders and those they lead is always the first victim when communication is compromised. And while trust can be destroyed in an instant, it can take months or even years to rebuild.
  • Civility wins the day — and lack of it erodes your position. Alumni, students and faculty have been understandably upset over the entire incident. But they harm their case by engaging in communication behaviors that are really no better than those exhibited by Dragas and her allies on the board of visitors. Sullivan exhorted her supporters to rise above: “I know that emotions are running high on Grounds,” she said, “but there is no excuse for abusing anyone with whom you disagree. Let me say in particular that Carl Zeithaml has been an exemplary member of the university community, and he and his family in no way deserve abusive language.”

Jefferson was clearly an advocate of open discourse and the free flow of information among leaders and those they lead. We can only wonder what he would think of what is happening to the institution he so carefully created.


Great News! CEOs Still Don’t Like Us Very Much

Public relations and communications professionals might be gaining some stature in the eyes of their CEOs, according to the latest Generally Accepted Practices report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The biennial survey included 620 PR and communication professionals in private and public companies, government organizations and agencies.

About 60 percent of the respondents said they’re invited to attend executive meetings while nearly 70 percent said their top executives take their recommendations seriously. Fifty-six percent said their CEOs believe PR and communications contribute to their company’s financial success.

That’s good news because PR and communication functions are like the runts of the litter, always having to fight to get fed and constantly vying for our executives’ attention and appreciation. The fact that more than half report their CEOs feel they contribute to the bottom line is encouraging indeed.

However, it begs some questions: Why do the other half of the CEOs keep communicators around? If they don’t believe PR and communication add any value, why do they keep funding the roles? What about the 40 percent who never get invited to executive meetings and the 30 percent whose recommendations are waved off as frivilous? No CEO in his or her right mind would hang on to a corporate function they don’t believe in or value.

I believe the truth is they do believe in PR and communication. They do value us. They’ll just never admit it.

If we’re doing our jobs right, CEOs will never be in love with those of us in PR and communication. That’s because we’re challenging conventional wisdom in our organizations. We’re pushing our executives to change the nature of their conversations as well as their tone. We’re advocating for the audiences who, more than ever, see through corporate crap and demand that CEOs be real and authentic no matter what they’re talking about. If we’re serious about providing value, we’re a burr in our CEOs’ sides most of the time — but all for the sake of helping our organizations do and say the right things. It’s all about helping our organizations — and leaders — succeed.

CEOs don’t like us very much and probably never will. But they know they need us.


7 Tips for Hiring a Communication Consultant

Do you know how many consultants it takes to change a light bulb? Five. One to change the bulb and four to tell him how much better they could have done it.

One of the biggest complaints about consultants is that they tell clients what the clients already know and then charge an arm and a leg for it. That can be true – if you choose the wrong consultant, or choose one for the wrong reasons. But conversely, a consultant can provide a lot of value if you know how to choose them, and hire one for the right reasons.

I’ve played on both teams. For 12 years I worked in corporations that hired communication consultants and for 12 years after that I worked as a self-employed communication consultant. Now I’m back on the inside and work with consultants from time to time. Based on my experience, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to hire a consultant to help you with your communication projects:

  • Be clear about why you are hiring a consultant. Do you simply want a “yes-man” who affirms everything you are doing is right? That’s not a good reason to hire a consultant. Getting a fresh, third-party perspective can add value, however. So can the addition of someone with capabilities your staff doesn’t have. Draw up a specific scope of work that clearly states the value your consultant brings to the table.
  • Hire a consultant with corporate experience. I’ve always been wary of consultants who have done nothing but consult. A consultant really can’t understand how corporations work unless he’s spent significant time inside of one – on the payroll. Even then, it’s important for a consultant to become immersed in your organization and to understand its unique culture, protocols, practices, etc.
  • Hire a consultant with practical communication experience. Has she ever developed a strategic communication plan? Has he managed an intranet or a publication? Have they conducted a communication audit? Find someone with the depth of practical experience that will enable them to view your program from a well-grounded perspective. It’s easy to suggest a new series of face-to-face meetings, but does the consultant really understand how that would play out? You want someone who has been there and done that.
  • Hire a consultant who asks a lot of questions. A good consultant will ask more questions than you do. Her advice and recommendations should come only after she asks a lot of probing questions. The greatest value a consultant brings to your organization is a fresh perspective, and that comes as a result of deeply understanding the problems and challenges your communication program faces.
  • Hire a consultant with an affable personality and straightforward delivery. The stereotype is those four consultants who tell you how much better they could change the light bulb. This is entirely subjective, but personality counts. Find someone who puts others at ease, but whose friendliness is genuine. You don’t want to feel as if they’re only being nice so they can sell you a bill of goods. Their delivery style should be straightforward – absent of jargon and consultant-speak, with a minimum of diagrams and other “products.” Trust your gut on this one – if you can have a conversation with him without cringing, that’s a good sign.
  • Hire a consultant who will tell you when the emperor has no clothes. An easygoing personality is important, but that doesn’t mean your consultant should be a pushover. You want someone who will be honest about what she observes. Again, a fresh perspective is a consultant’s most valuable offering. Be sure your consultant has the confidence and the wisdom to point out things that aren’t working and areas for improvement.
  • Hire a consultant who will work for a project fee rather than an hourly rate. From the consultant’s perspective, agreeing on terms is one of the most difficult parts of the arrangement. It’s especially difficult to estimate the amount of work that a project will entail, so estimating a project fee can be challenging. However, if you hire a consultant by the hour, you are paying only for his time, which is a commodity. Instead, the focus should be on the value the consultant provides in terms of experience and knowledge. Settle on a project fee and then you won’t be watching the clock all the time. At the very least, arrange a fee for a limited but specific period of time and agree to revisit it at some point in time when you can assess how the project is going.

Do you have experience working with communication consultants? What are some other tips for making the experience a productive one?