Business transformations including restructures, divestitures, and acquisitions are happening all the time. These types of changes are delicate and need to be managed appropriately to minimize the impact to people, as well as the company’s brand and reputation. But what happens when something leaks, things move too quickly, or the news gets out before you can manage it with your people? These circumstances are rare, but we’ve seen it happen before.
A recent example of this is with WeWork, an American commercial real estate company that provides shared workspaces for companies across North America. It is a great story of growth and innovation, but also of one that grew far too quickly. If you’re anything like me and follow the news, you will have heard of the financial troubles they were in. Luckily, they were able to receive a bailout from SoftBank but unfortunately for WeWork, it has also resulted in negative press. Here are some of the recent headlines:
When you see headlines like these, how does it make you feel? Would you look to rent space from WeWork? Would you want to work there? Is Adam Neumann, WeWork co-founder, a leader you would stand by? Now think about how you would feel if you were an employee of WeWork. Probably not great. So, what can businesses do to manage the change, prevent rumours and distrust, and get ahead of the press?
Given the magnitude of this deal, both WeWork and SoftBank will certainly have a cohesive plan of action but I’ve also included my top three tips on how to navigate the press when your business is undergoing a significant change below.
1. Treat your people with respect and as adults.
The worst thing to do during times of significant change is to withhold information (when it’s available). Instead, you should trust your people to let them know the truth about the events taking place and what this will mean to them. It is critical to share this news in a timely manner, especially if it will result in negative impacts like layoffs. Give people the time to prepare, offer them resources to help them get back onto their feet, and be sensible about the packages you will be providing so that you don’t receive any media backlash (think of Sears and the pension cuts). Many organizations also look at opportunities to provide early retirement packages or similar agreements with employees who will voluntarily leave where possible.
Unfortunately, such changes will always result in anger, resentment and sadness. This is part of the natural cycle of change and while it cannot be avoided, there are ways to help relieve this including relying on your leadership team to support their people through the change.
2. Ensure you have a solid plan which includes communications.
Communications is a critical. In these cases, it’s important for to ensure that you are providing employees with timely updates and addressing their questions and concerns as they arise. This can be done through several avenues including messages from leadership (C-Suite and People Managers), town halls where you can speak to and address the press coverage, regular Q&A’s and more. Your leaders will be the number one source of information and you must support them by empowering them to lead the change, keeping them informed and by providing them with key messaging. It is also important to promote your media and social media policies which will speak to who can speak to media and what people should be mindful of posting on their personal social media networks.
Change Management, Human Resources and Operations, will also often be at the table and it is important for all functions to work together and to develop a plan that covers all the key areas and impacts of the change.
3. Have a strong spokesperson and media relations strategy.
A strong spokesperson (not the communications expert) are the individuals who are making the decisions. They will likely be a part of the C-Suite and must be media trained. This will ensure they are not only comfortable speaking to the press, but are also able to express empathy and show sincerity.
Once you have identified a spokesperson, I would strongly advise to begin coordinating media interviews right away. Being proactive in these circumstances can go a long way, and demonstrate to the public and your people that you are not being deceitful. Doing this will also prevent journalists and the media outlets from seeking information about the change from individuals who are not approved spokespeople. In these cases, you won’t have control over the messaging which can be detrimental.
It’s important to point out that you must also respect the journalist, meaning you’ll have to let them do what they do best and write the story. You won’t likely have the chance to review or edit a piece before it’s gone out. This will be scary to some, but if you have the right spokesperson, strong relationships with the press, and consistent messaging, you’ll have a greater chance in managing the media frenzy that can often erupt when there are significant business transformations like the one WeWork is experiencing.
The press is an incredibly powerful tool, that can influence how your people and the public perceive your business. Your brand reputation can make or break you and is not something that should be taken lightly. In recent years we have even seen movements like #MeToo drive significant change within the world.
Change happens fast, people are emotional, and news is available at your fingertips thanks to our mobile phones. Don’t sit back and wait for it all to crash! Act quickly and leverage the steps outlined above to get ahead and manage the transformation so that you don’t have to pick up all the pieces and work backwards. Do what you can to tame the media frenzy so that your business can be sustainable for the long-term and so your people can feel supported during such changes.
Director Marketing & Communications