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PR Survival Guide Seminar: A Lesson in the Value of Transparency

Posted At: August 24, 2009 11:17 AM
by Michael Sznajderman, Contributing Writer

Conveying ugly messages in tough economic times takes planning, sensitivity and sometimes, a little creativity. And while it may be difficult, often the best route for communicating a tough story is to be as transparent as possible, a panel of experts told a recent gathering of Alabama PR professionals.

“You’re better off being straight with people,” said Julius Weyman, regional executive with the Birmingham, Ala., branch of the Federal Reserve of Alabama. “The truth works best.”

Weyman was one of the communicators who shared insights during the “PR Survival Guide,” a seminar held July 14 in Birmingham and hosted by the Public Relations Society of America’s Alabama chapter.

Crisis management strategies
Laura Howe, senior director of public affairs for the American Red Cross’ national office, said her team decided “first and foremost” to be as candid as possible when talking to media about the nonprofit’s recent financial travails. Last year the Red Cross reported a deficit topping $200 million, which – though improved since then – resulted in hundreds of layoffs and an emergency loan plea to Congress to shore up its disaster relief program.

Rather than allowing the story to trickle out from disgruntled former employees, Howe said the Red Cross invited in key reporters for briefings about the organization’s financial challenges. It also ratcheted up its social media operations – a move that not only worked to help frame a tough story, but also provided an effective way to send reassuring messages to legions of worried Red Cross employees and volunteers across the country. “In the end it was the mission that drove us – that we’re here to help people in disasters,” Howe said.

While Howe worked to disseminate details of Red Cross’ restructuring efforts and restore confidence, Patrick Keefe was working to keep a lack of confidence in the nation’s banking system from staining his industry. As vice president of communications for the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Keefe had to convince policymakers, the media and credit union members across the country that the worldwide financial crisis and controversial bank “bailouts” had nothing to do with credit unions.

With a very limited budget, “We had to spread the word quickly and cheaply,” Keefe said. The message: that not only were credit union accounts safe and insured, but they offered a safe harbor from global economic turmoil.

“We used every channel we could think of,” Keefe said, from booking the association president on cable business news shows, to creating house ads for use by the 8,000 CUNA-member credit unions, to even crashing a news conference of Capitol Hill Republicans to hand out fact sheets.

Communicating hard times at Honda

Crash is one way to describe what’s happened to the automotive industry lately, and while the big three U.S. automakers have taken the brunt of the public’s and politicians’ ire, no car company has been immune from the economic downturn.

Mark Morrison, manager of corporate affairs and communications at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, told seminar attendees that his focus in recent months has been on making sure the 5,000 employee “associates” and contractors at the plant in Lincoln are kept apprised of industry developments and how it might affect them – especially as the plant prepared to shave production because of shrinking sales.

It was uncharted territory for Morrison, who for years had sailed smoothly across an unbroken sea of good news stories, beginning with Honda’s decision to build a car and engine plant in Alabama. Now, suddenly, employees and their families faced uncertainty about the future, and rumors flourished.

“We needed to increase our associates’ understanding, and the community’s understanding,” Morrison said. For his internal audience, which works in shifts, it was decided face-to-face meetings were the best way to provide details accurately: that there would be no job cuts, and that employees had several options for helping the company temporarily reduce operations and work-hours. The company supplemented the meetings with information provided through company publications, the plant’s television system, and by working closely with local media.

The importance of transparency

Whether or not a company or institution is facing workforce reductions, seminar panelists agreed that keeping internal audiences informed during tough times is crucial. And if layoffs do happen, treating the people who leave – and those left behind – with honesty, dignity and respect is vital to preserving the organization’s reputation.

“No one likes dealing with negative news,” said William Carroll, a former banker and now senior vice president with Armstrong Relocation Services. After overseeing several job reductions, Carroll became a victim himself during the recent shakeout of Birmingham’s banking sector. He said organizations struggling through the recession, and facing the possibility of job cuts, need a detailed communication plan for media, for employees and their families, for investors, for customers and vendors. He said the plan should provide responses for a variety of questions and contingencies and recommendations for dealing with rumors. Carroll said the plan should also include an “open-door” policy, so that employees know they can approach their managers with the tough questions, and get straight answers.

Maureen Gleason, vice president with American Behavioral, which provides companies with a variety of support services during downsizing, agreed that transparency in communications is vital. “Don’t ever tell a lie, because it will come back to haunt you.”

Carroll said, “You have to stop and think: how would you want to be treated if you were laid off? Be prepared, and be truthful,” he said.

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