Monday, 1 April 2013

Words...don't come easy to me.

The lyrics of the F.R.David song always make me smile. That is because many senior executives seem to have great difficulty finding the right ones at the most important times for their companies.
But when communicating, especially to the media, "words" is all you have. No natty iPad, no "emotional crutch" Power Point to rely on. Just you...and words. 
So words are vitally important. Say the wrong thing and you can easily demotivate an entire workforce. Or, as Gerald Ratner discovered, destroy an empire and lose £500m.
Let's take a hypothetical situation of a company that has to make 12 per cent of its employees redundant. Say around 1,000 people.
Sounds like bad news eh? Heart is already thumping, tongue feels like the floor of a birdcage, nervous twitch appears.
What if I'm up against Paxman? Or the General Secretary of the Union?
What to do...? 

Some spokespeople go for what I call the "sackcloth and ashes" interview....
"Well, it could be worse. We're not as bad as company XYZ. I blame the recession/government/banking crisis...Morale is very low but we hope it'll pick up."
That'll really engage the troops, who let's face it, are your front line ambassadors.
But wait a moment.
How about looking for the "good news"?
What's good about 1,000 job losses, you ask?
Well, for a start, you are safeguarding the jobs of 88 per cent of the workforce (VERY good news for them and also for the shareholders, of course).
And these jobs, well they are not going immediately but in a year.
The "colleagues" (not employees, by the way) actually may not go after all because you are in fact outsourcing the roles to another company.
It is the other company's decision in the long run, based on the economic climate in 12 months.
And who can tell right now what that will be?
If anyone does go they'll receive full counselling on seeking a career change and a generous settlement.

"We" (not "the company") want to thank them for the great service they have given and we're sorry if anyone eventually does have to leave. 
The decision has been forced on us because most of these colleagues work in call centres and more and more customers now want to buy online.
We've listened to our customers and want to give them the best service possible and the keenest prices (good news for the customers, too).
We have engaged with the unions and will continue to do so.
The company, therefore, has been open, honest and transparent.
Company spokespeople have to learn to tell the story properly.
And to use the correct words.
Yet so many approach the task with their management head on...looking only for the "problems".
I have a video clip of a joint presentation made by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern shortly before the Good Friday Agreement was sealed.
There was a glitch, a delay.
They both spoke for about four minutes but they used very different language and the impact of what they said was totally different.
Blair conveyed optimism, Ahern pessimism.
So, when facing the media, think about the story you wish to tell and take care with those words.

Ed Murrow

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