Offshore outsourcing. These two words have sent a cold chill up the spines of many a corporate communications professional over the past couple years - especially those asked to put a positive spin on the issue for their companies.
And why wouldn't it? Offshore outsourcing ranks right up there with Sarbanes-Oxley when it comes to lightning-rod phrases that many people love to hate.
It's even migrating from the technology sector to our own industry, as evidenced by the recent "byline strike" by Reuters journalists - 350 of whom withheld their bylines on January 13 to protest the export of some editorial jobs to lower-wage countries.
Love it or hate it, though, no one can deny that the offshore juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
In fact, IDC predicts the worldwide market for offshore IT services will grow from nearly $7 billion in revenues in 2003 to $17 billion by 2008, achieving a five-year compound annual growth rate of nearly 20%.
So instead of running for the hills, PR pros would be well-advised to step up to the plate and begin constructing strategies to proactively communicate around this sensitive and at times volatile subject.
Easier said than done.
That's because many companies in this country that are planning to send work to India, China, Mexico, Ireland, or elsewhere are spending far more time on the "hard science" of offshoring than they are on the "soft science."
Hard science refers to the legal, regulatory, compliance, and operational aspects that go into offshore programs. The soft science of how to communicate it properly to all constituents is too often overlooked or relegated to the bottom of the list. Most companies that fall into this camp are there because they simply would rather not talk about their offshore programs at all. This is problematic. As communications pros, we can't afford to sit idly by while this particular train leaves the station. We must force the issue of communications onto the operations and tech people.
In theory this sounds like a no-brainer. In reality, it's an uphill struggle.
Case in point: I recently spoke at a national conference on offshore outsourcing attended by banking and insurance industry executives. For two days, speaker after speaker got up to the podium, talking about how to construct and execute a smart, legally compliant global sourcing strategy.
I was the last speaker of the conference. For the briefest of moments, I thought it was because they were saving the best for last.
In reality, however, they put the communicator on the podium last because, generally, when companies engage in offshore outsourcing, they don't think about how to communicate it until after the global switch has been turned on.
And by that time, employees, customers, shareholders, and media might already have formed opinions about the outsourcing program and, by extension, the company - ones that are oftentimes formed from incomplete or inaccurate information.
My advice to the audience at this conference was simple.
First, make sure you have a fully engaged executive sponsor who is willing and capable of serving as the voice for the company on its offshore strategy. This will usually be the CIO or CTO. He or she needs to be able to present the case for offshoring well to multiple audiences - employees being the most important of these - and might need training.
Don't be bashful about enlisting the support of people who can put these executive sponsors through communications boot camp on this specific issue. It is much better to suffer the slings and arrows in private before opening one's self to the same scrutiny in public.
Second, any company that engages in offshoring that may cost people their jobs needs to understand that it's a sensitive issue that should be communicated honestly, openly, and with compassion. The key is to do so without appearing to apologize for offshoring in the process. Anyone who does that is going to wish he were in Bangalore instead of his programmers. Explain, communicate, and provide rationale that speaks to the benefits of the program, but don't run from the issue.
Third, if ever there were a time for communicators to insert themselves into the operational planning phase of any program, this is it, and this is the issue. It's always surprising - not to mention disheartening - to see communicators on the outside looking in, only being called on after the offshore program has launched.
Trying to understand all the nuances and complexity of an offshore program after it's been constructed is time-consuming and ill-advised. Communicators need to be a part of the planning process long before the program is introduced to employees or outside audiences. We need to invite ourselves to the party.
Most important, once the strategic decision has been made about whether and how to offshore, all executives need to have the courage of their convictions. And this will require that we as communicators step up to the plate and start talking about offshoring the right way.