CHEERLEADING THE TROOPS: They've seen colleagues ushered out, andhave had to take on extra work. Eleanor Trickett reports on how tomotivate the staff that survived the layoffs

By Labor Day, 983,000 people across the US had been "downsized,"

"rightsized," or just plain laid off. News of the latest company

hackings was wearily reported rather than breathlessly sensationalized,

and pink-slip parties were waved aside as "so last year."

According to the Council of PR Firms, around 2,000 of those now seeking

the elusive gaps in the job market are in the PR business, the corollary

of which is a large number of people still working who have signed one

too many leaving cards and gotten drunk at one too many leaving


But the show must go on, and while staff numbers are depleted and fewer

people are doing more work, it is vital that the remaining - and often

best - employees are cherished and nurtured. Not that staff

communication and motivation is only important during hard times, of

course. Few companies worth their salt have failed to establish some

kind of program to encourage teamwork and happiness - and, ultimately -

productivity. Maybe it doesn't have a name and a handbook, but companies

do realize that their staff needs to be able to blow off steam from time

to time.

The answer isn't all fun and games

Agencies have instituted a variety of measures to make PR staffers feel

valued and help to keep productivity up at a time when morale can flag

(see sidebar). However, a balance has to be struck. There's a tendency

for some of these measures to be regarded as patronizing by employees,

or even for them to question the expenditure at a time of


Celia Berk, worldwide president of human resources for

Burson-Marsteller, pooh-poohs the notion of placating skittish staff

with the likes of brown bag lunches and Frisbee tournaments. "I'd argue

that the very last thing that's needed is anything that feels to

employees like a special program to make people feel better," she says.

"Employers have to respect their intelligence and ability to figure

things out for themselves, and not gloss over or sugarcoat things that

are very serious. When people are worried and feel badly about

colleagues who have gone, that's the last thing they need."

But while "shortsighted incentives like pizza lunches" (according to one

agency VP who has seen too many empty cubicles explained too glibly) may

seem patronizing, people certainly notice them when they're not there

anymore. Take the media frenzy over Cisco's diktat to all staff members

to cut back on free beverages, or Goldman Sachs' cessation of its

well-stocked fruit bowls.

Does this make employees think that their bosses are mean (in both

senses of the word)? Not if it's done right, says Peter Shankman, former

president of New York hi-tech hot shop The Geek Factory, sold to GS

Schwartz in July after the tech slump hit. The Geek Factory was famed

for its bizarre stunts, Nerf-gun-toting staff, and freebies but, he

says, a downturn is precisely the time to stop such fripperies. "It's

vital to keep morale up through actions and deeds as opposed to saying,

'You're not happy?

Well, here's another pinball machine and more free pizza.' The character

of an agency really shines through when you can tell your staff that

while you can't afford to take them skydiving this year, you will do

everything in your power to make them really want to work here."

Shankman says that the fact that his agency was small was an advantage

when it became apparent that the bottom was falling out of the tech


"Although it was very difficult, the good side was that those who were

left all knew that they had the opportunity to bring in business

themselves, and make a significant bottom-line impact."

An A for effort....

But there are a number of people, especially from the corporate ranks,

who say that their attempts to take on extra responsibility and

diversify into more needy areas were met by brick walls. The PR manager

of a data storage company who was laid off last year says, "Whenever I

came up with ideas, I was told I didn't have the 'bandwidth' to take on

anything else. It was a case of being told to crank out one press

release per week for a company that didn't make any news of

significance. I was trying to get interest in the internal newsletter by

doing more employee stories, but they even cut back on that."

Some agencies, like Golin/Harris International in San Francisco, have

chosen to crank up on training where staffers don't have enough work to

do, which has the side-effect of making those employees feel invested


"We have encouraged staff to study what is currently happening with the

economy so that they remember it for the next time there's a downturn,"

says Tim Johnson, managing director. "Communicating that management is

interested in having staff learn is a great motivator."

But for some PR departments and agencies, the idea of needing to

motivate staff hasn't even crossed their minds. A senior writer at a

small West Coast tech agency says that he and his peers have found many

employers using the downturn and culture of layoffs as a stick with

which to beat their staffs. "The economy of fear is certainly affecting

a lot of us, but I don't see employers racing to console their workers

who have had to say good-bye to their cubiclemates. Those who are left

doing more for the same pay - or even less - are usually made to feel

grateful they aren't getting those final two checks," he says.

'Do ya feel lucky, punk? Do ya?'

Harry Pforzheimer, director of Edelman's Western region, admits that

there is an element of truth to the fact that many employees feel lucky

to still have jobs, and are even encouraged to feel that way. But he

adds that it's a "50-50 thing: yes, please do feel good about having a

job, but we feel very good that you are still with us."

Michael Fox, SVP in Ogilvy PR's corporate practice and director of the

firm's workplace performance group, identifies several keys to credible

communications - especially during downsizing. As well as anticipating

employees' concerns before they are voiced and making sure that

management delivers any news of layoffs before the press or the

grapevine does, he emphasizes the importance of customizing and

prioritizing messages. "Communications should be tailored to affected

and non-affected employees, and companies should focus on maintaining

morale and productivity within the remaining workforce," he


Communicating the minutiae of the processes is also vital. "In the

absence of definitive information, tell employees what is being done to

find the answers, and when they can expect an update. Just knowing that

someone is addressing their concerns will help maintain confidence."

When it actually comes to the thing that employees and management alike

fear the most (layoffs), it's vital that employees hear the right things

from the right people at the right time - and in the right context. At

the end of last year, General Motors' communications department was

mandated to cut 10% of its staff as part of an overall 10% cut in the

entire workforce.

Steve Harris, GM's VP of communications, explains, "We worked hard to

make sure that GM employees understood that environment, how things in

the economy in general impacted them, and what we all needed to do to

stay competitive. (GCI Boxembaum Grates) developed 'Messages From the

Marketplace,' which provided detailed economic and industry analysis,

and we gave it to all employees, whether in the plants or in the


A real motivation killer is for an employer to underestimate the

intelligence of its staff. A Labor Day survey for the Council of PR

Firms by Bruskin Research revealed that a surprisingly high number (72%)

of Americans are not worried about being laid off. But it also found,

says Jack Bergen, president of the council, that "poor workplace

communications can sow confusion and distrust, sap productivity, and

irreparably harm a company's reputation and its bottom line." He

continues: "Workers now expect to be told where they stand and what

their companies' future prospects are so that they can exercise more

control over their own destiny."

And employees are actually responding to the increased transparency -

even if slowly at first. Berk reports a noticeable increase in Burson

staffers coming to talk to senior management about their jobs in recent

months. "The conversation has often begun on a different tack, and

before it's over, it has hit on a number of subjects. The person

wouldn't have picked up the phone or stuck their head in to ask a

difficult question in the first place, but they get to it


CEOs on tour

Sometimes, however, questions remain unasked - which is where proactive

management must come in. The crisis has caused many senior managers to

come out from behind their closed office doors and become more of an

internal influence on the company, rather than the external influence

that was emphasized during a time of rich business opportunity. Burson's

president and CEO Chet Burchett has been on a world tour of sorts,

standing in front of his remaining employees, asking the questions,

"What's not clear to you? What do you want to know?"according to Berk.

However, he adds that the most important question is, "Who's leading


As Ogilvy's Fox says, "Success - for employees as well as the company -

will be defined by employees who fully understand the company's vision

and strategic direction, and are motivated to actively contribute to its

future." And, more importantly, adds Berk, "We're a company of

communications experts. We're not dealing with an uninformed



Wilson McHenry: Cut salaries by 20%, but also cut down to a four-day

week, leaving employees available for (non-conflicting) freelance work.

The agency also converted its normal annual weekend retreat into an

online "e-retreat," getting to know your coworkers via keyboards and

phones to stay within budget and keep the teamwork alive... through

crossword puzzles and researching our colleagues' deepest secrets.

Vollmer PR: Vollmer University, a professional development program that

includes monthly presentations by experts in various fields, both from

within the agency and from outside.

Golin/Harris San Francisco: Massages, summer days, half-day Fridays,

monthly "chill sessions" with beer and food, a "fun committee"

encouraging life outside work, which among other things produces a

biweekly newsletter identifying upcoming concerts, tours, museum and art

exhibits, as well as new restaurant reviews.

Edelman Chicago: Beach volleyball, a group walk home, and a movie


Eastwick Communications: "Huddling in closer quarters" - moving

desks/offices around so there's more close contact with peers.

Jericho Communications, New York: Canoeing down the Delaware River.

BSMG, Chicago: "President's MVP Award," given out monthly to the

employee who stood out the most during the past 30 days and demonstrated

qualities of a "PR superstar."

Nichol & Company, New York: Wine tastings with food accompaniments

prepared by the staff.

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