Perhaps nothing invites speculation about an organization - both within and without - quite like the departure of a senior executive. Why is this individual leaving? Is the business or organization in trouble? Do layoffs loom?
This always proves a popular topic for the media - as seen in the recent coverage of the resignation of Merrill Lynch CEO Stanley O'Neal, after the brokerage recorded a $2.24 billion quarterly loss. But communications professionals note that getting the word out about an executive departure must involve more than just issuing a press release.
A range of audiences need to be informed, of course, including staff, investors, clients, vendors, community or political leaders, and the media. Above all, employees must never be allowed to hear the news from anyone besides management, stresses Curley & Pynn president Roger Pynn. He adds that keeping staff out of touch can damage morale to the point where they may think about looking for new jobs.
"The cost of hiring and integrating people into your culture - the training required, the cost of turnover - is something that every company has to avoid," Pynn says. "When you have a vacuum in senior management, it creates a sense of unease. Don't let them hear the news from a neighbor, the media, competitors, or anyone else."
Certainly the same goes for key vendors or clients, or board members if the departure is not a decision made by the board itself. Instead of just communicating via written statement, Pynn recommends creating a phone tree in which senior management can make personal contact with as many key people as possible.
Company meetings announcing the news are also an important way to maintain good relationships with employees, notes Crosby-Volmer International Communications president Rob Volmer. He suggests that as the employee meetings begin - and they may occur in multiple offices simultaneously - the organization can send out releases to the media. Timing the release of information to the media is more important than ever, given how quickly internal memos can now be leaked to the media through blogs and other online sources.
"Immediately upon the start of [the meeting] is when you send out the e-mail to media sources, analysts, and others," Volmer says. He compares the danger of allowing third-parties to spread the word of an executive departure to the old game of "telephone," in which a phrase or a sentence inevitably gets altered and distorted as it's whispered from person to person.
As for the content of what's being communicated, Michael Geczi, Ashton Partners' EVP of corporate communications, recommends limiting the message to two or three overarching messages, always focusing on the stability of the organization's leadership going forward. If the departure is due to some illegal activity such as embezzling, the messaging should stress the internal mechanism in place that caught the activity - or, if there wasn't one, that it will be put in place to catch such malfeasance in the future.
"There has to be this message about continuity of the broad and deep management team that customers are not going to see any changes," Geczi says.
Often there may be legal constraints on an organization if the executive's departure is due to some scandal or illegality, notes Dave Groobert, GM of Environics' Washington office, so the organization may not be able to provide as much detail as employees or other audiences would like. If the executive really is leaving simply for the oft-heard "personal reasons," elaborating on just what those reasons are - retirement, desire to live elsewhere, health problems - will limit idle speculation, provided the executive is amenable to discussing those reasons.
But if organizations can't discuss why exactly the executive is leaving, then it's best to just say so, says Pynn. Employees appreciate candor, especially during potentially very uncertain times when executives come or go.
"If you lose their confidence, you lose their productivity; their commitment goes down; their health goes down," Pynn says. "Senior departures may be one of the most important things that PR can get involved in."
Focus on the new executive, or processes in place to find the replacement
Keep messaging to two or three basic points
Provide as much information as possible on the reason for the departure
Let employees hear the news from anyone but management
Overlook the timing of the news to different audiences; try to minimize leaks to the media
Forget to inform teleworkers or satellite offices as soon as possible