Why communicating with your stakeholders doesn’t constitute spin

One of the first major projects on which I worked when I transferred from high tech communications to the corporate communications group at an agency beautifully illustrates why you may need to spend more (time and/or money, depending on your situation) during an economic downturn such as the one we’re experiencing these days than you do when times are good.

While I don’t think I’m still legally bound by the confidentiality agreement I signed more than a decade ago, you’ll have to forgive me for not naming names here, because I do still feel ethically bound not to refer to the client by name.

This company’s stock has always been referred to as ‘cyclical.’ Naturally the backlash when its share price has experienced downturns has always made the news and provoked much bitterness amongst its shareholders. I would love to read a true corporate bio of this entity at some point – perhaps I should write it.

But my point is this: we were hired during one of the stock downturn periods to help manage a major announcement regarding a shift in the company’s business model that would see it embrace a very different, late 20th Century model.

As a major Canadian employer that had recently completed the purchase of another conglomerate, the company also needed restructuring, and to define the business it was actually in. Was it R&D? Was it manufacturing? Was it repair? It couldn’t be all of those things to all of those people. After buying a company twice its own size, there were inevitable redundancies and a real need to take a look at all its business processes.

So we were hired to manage the process of co-ordinating and communicating the news of the new business model the company had decided to adopt. Here are some of the things we looked at:

  • employee communications – ensuring all employees received the news that some facilities were to be sold or closed and layoffs were going to occur, and that they received this news from their managers, not from a press release
  • stakeholder communications – since they were operating in several different countries, several communities within some of those countries were going to be negatively impacted by the news, although others were going to see the creation of new facilities. There were many time zones involved. Stakeholders included local, regional and national governments, as well as shareholders.
  • media relations – ensuring that spokespersons were available in each of the locations to meet the demand for not only national and international media requests, but to allow local media the opportunity to have its questions answered as well. We studied the communities in which bad news was going to be announced, and the economic impact plant closure or sale would have on those communities. Spokespersons needed to be briefed, rehearsed, and supported so they had the facts straight.

The preparation for this announcement lasted seven weeks, and I’m pretty sure I worked close to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for those seven weeks. At least half our time as consultants was spent on developing an employee communications package to help managers answer all the questions employees might have, at a time that was bound to be highly emotional when they learned that colleagues were going to be laid off.

We drew in colleagues from our global network who were experts in areas we’d never visited or knew only as tourists, because we needed their expertise. We couldn’t possibly know the subtleties of how each community would react.

All this work was necessary, not to ensure the company’s stock price didn’t take a hit, but because it was the right thing to do. Treating your employees and your stakeholders even handedly and giving them the respect they’re due can make all the difference when you’re trying to remain an employer of choice. Keeping your staff informed of your business model, strategy, and corporate objectives is pretty high on the list of things you need to do to achieve those objectives. Making sure outplacement counselling is available, and making sure your employees don’t find out they’ve just been laid off by hearing it on the news is crucial to properly managing a corporation.

So it’s hard for me to read an article like this one about the amount of money spent by local governments on ‘publicity’ in the UK. 2007 population estimates that nearly 61 million people live in the UK, so it’s just over twice Canada’s size in that regard. In terms of land mass though, we’re talking about a lot of people crowded into a very small area compared with the wide-open spaces we’re used to outside Canada’s two dozen or so major urban areas.

Let’s look at the numbers in a way the Taxpayers Alliance (who produced the report) probably don’t want us to. £450 million pounds and 61 million people works out (unless I’m doing something terribly wrong with the math), to very little more than £7  per person per year.

What wouldn’t I give to have my local government spend that kind of vast sum communicating with me annually, so I have some advance warning of what roads they’re going to dig up to install new sewer mains, build (or close) facilities like swimming pools and skating rinks, initiatives relating to affordable housing in my area, and the reasons why liquor licenses have been approved or denied in certain locations, traffic calming measures and the installation of new stop lights at dangerous intersections, the fact that I can now pay my parking tickets or my municipal taxes online instead of searching for an envelope, buying a stamp, hunting for a mailbox and then paying the bank for the privilege of writing a cheque? To whom should I make my cheque payable – or do you take debit?

And of course, the news is being presented as outrageous given the fact that we’re experiencing a global recession. Interesting, because the figures reported are for 2007, and no one thought anyone was in a recession then. Here’s the call to action from the Taxpayers’ Alliance:

“It is incredibly disappointing that, despite the economic downturn and the loss of millions in Icelandic Banks, local authorities are still spending nearly half a billion pounds a year on publicity. Whilst we salute the 217 councils who have cut spending on publicity, the 225 councils who have increased spending should hang their heads in shame. In the middle of a recession, councils need to cut back on propaganda and spin doctors and deliver savings to taxpayers,” said Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Uh huh. And perhaps if watchdog organizations weren’t so busy supposedly reporting the ‘facts’ without putting them into any kind of real perspective, local councils wouldn’t have to spend quite so much time, effort and money trying to explain the glaringly obvious.

Much is made in the report of the fact that council taxes have doubled in the last decade. I’d love to know how much property values have increased over that same decade. If you know, leave me a comment below.

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About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Geographically, I get around a bit (at least within Canada). Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
This entry was posted in community and stakeholder consultations, media relations, public relations and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why communicating with your stakeholders doesn’t constitute spin

  1. Mike Harmon says:

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. ruthseeley says:

    Thanks, Mike – always good to know one isn’t just howling into the wind.

  3. Happy Flower says:

    Enjoy your thoughtful writing. Looking forwards to reading more in New Year 2009. Merry Christmas.

  4. ruthseeley says:

    Merci milles fois. Columbine.

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