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
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
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
KEEPING AGENCY WORKERS HAPPY
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.