At my recent ski trip out to Lake Tahoe with good pals, we ended up with a case of Molson Canadian beer one night. The bottles contained labels with the phrase “Answer Honestly” and then presented an either/or question: Would you prefer to be rich or good looking; would you prefer to be a vampire or a werewolf; etc. It led to some pretty heated debates among some slightly tipsy people about the relative merits and ethical implications of flying vs. being invisible, for example.
Last week Steve Crescenzo even asked his own “Answer Honestly” - tweet:
Communicators are often faced with situations that feature unappealing options and we have to make the best decision we can based on our constraints, resources, and the needs of our organizations or clients. We don’t have a choice - we are called upon to handle whatever situation lies before us. But wouldn’t it be fun to pick and choose? Here’s a communicator’s version of “Answer Honestly” :
Answer Honestly: Would you rather have to communicate a layoff of 10 percent of your workforce or a 20 percent pay cut for all of your workforce?
This one’s tough, and both of these scenarios are happening at a lot of companies today. On the one hand, a pay cut seems to appear more equitable: everyone takes a little bit of pain to save the jobs of some of their co-workers. But it also means that everyone’s left unhappy. A layoff affects fewer people more profoundly. From a communications standpoint, a layoff is more of an “event” that happens and is over relatively quickly. I know there’s plenty of research about “survivor’s guilt” among remaining workers, and communicators need to be extremely sensitive to how the news is delivered not only to departing employees but also remaining ones. How will their jobs change now that staff reductions have been made? How will the organization continue to meet its goals with fewer people? Is this all or will there be more layoffs to come? But I still think I’d rather have to communicate a lay off than across-the-board pay cuts. The pay cuts mean that everyone remains in the organization, but everyone now has something to complain about. And they will complain – here is some pretty solid evidence of that. While across-the-board pay cuts are often communicated with a “we’re all in this together” mentality, it’s tough to get people to focus on the needs of group/organization versus their own personal situation. It depends so much on the culture of the organization and its leadership.
Answer Honestly: Would you rather have to communicate a product recall or a financial/ethical scandal?
Hmm. Both of these scenarios can be red flags for endemic corruption within an organization. A product recall can be difficult if the source or reason hasn’t been identified. But at least in that situation there’s a chance it was an accident or honest mistake that led to the quality issues. There are plenty of great examples known throughout communications-land as best practices for how to handle this type of event: Lexus, Tylenol = good, Ford/Firestone, Peanut Butter = not so good. If handled correctly, the damage to an organization’s reputation can be minimal, and in some cases it’s an opportunity to provide outstanding customer service. With a financial or ethical scandal, however, the root of the problem is usually shady people doing shady things. There’s not much you can do to overcome that, and it typically indicates that a culture existed within an organization that allowed it to happen – management either participated, encouraged, or looked the other way (do I even need to say Enron? Didn’t think so). There’s typically great distrust of an organization after a scandal, and often attempts to repair the reputation are immediately labeled as disingenuous spin. I’d have to go for a product recall here (and hope that the recall is not due to some sort of deliberate malicious behavior – which I guess would make it an ethical scandal, right?).
Answer Honestly: Would you rather duke it out with Human Resources or Legal over your communications strategies and wording?
Shoot me now. Obviously communicators have to work with all involved stakeholders when communicating internally or externally. There are certainly laws regarding employee privacy, forward-looking financial statements, and competitive/proprietary information. But a communicator’s quest for transparency is often foiled by one or both of these functions. They are business partners, however, and deserve the same respect that we seek as communicators. Working with them is not optional and often these functions to provide a different viewpoint that can enhance communications. If I could choose to only work with one, though, I’d have to go with HR. Often times the run-ins I’ve had with legal come down to, “It’s the law. We can’t say it your way. End of story.” With HR, there can be a little more wiggle-room and with some good supporting arguments, you can often win them over– or at least meet in the middle.
Answer Honestly – what would you choose?