P&O is making the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment. Almost every company has to rationalise its operations or make redundancies once in a while, and these difficult decisions can not only be painful for those directly affected by them but can also damage the reputation of the organisation itself. We frequently work with companies and non-commercial organisations that have to make difficult decisions and unpopular announcements, and we help them to minimise negative media coverage.
So what has gone wrong in the case of P&O, and what can other organisations learn from it?
First of all, even before you come to the message, it’s essential to think about the medium. Hearing that you’re going to lose your job can be devastating. It’s therefore crucial that whoever has to deliver this information thinks very carefully about how they’re going to do it. In these difficult and sensitive situations, it’s always better if it comes face-to-face from a line manager. Even with the plethora of communications technology that we have available today, speaking to somebody in person in a small group is the only way to put across a message. Several companies have been attacked for sacking staff by text messages.
Doing so by video link or Teams meeting as P&O has done is unacceptable. It lacks basic human warmth, and the fact that there is no opportunity for two-way communication makes it appear insensitive, callous and uncaring.
If you have to deliver a difficult message, it’s essential to include an element of sympathy or concern. Commercial viability might be a good logical argument that it sounds cold and unfeeling on its own. There needs to be some acknowledgement of the human cost here.
You can see how badly this issue was handled by looking at the media coverage, which is overwhelmingly negative. During our crisis management and message testing and development courses, our trainers, all experienced working journalists, give course participants insights into how the media would cover any issue.
Is there a political stance to be taken?
You can see that politicians would take the opportunity to attack P&O in this case. Keir Starmer delivered a punchy and powerful attack: “It just makes my blood boil. It’s a complete betrayal of the workforce. It’s just disgusting,” he said. This natural punchy language is unlike the usual bland, clichéd politician’s comments. Nicola Sturgeon, who is an adroit politician, whatever you think of her policies, piled in as well.
We always warn participants about the “while I’ve got you here” question in our media training courses. James Heappey, the defence minister, appearing on the morning news programmes to talk about Ukraine, was aware of the risks of being asked about something that is not directly relevant to the subject of the interview but is still topical. He was undoubtedly well briefed and was ready with his line to take, describing the move as “horrendous.”
The Daily Mail went on the attack with reports about the location of P&O’s parent company (Dubai) and its profits (£683 million). A foreign company make bucket loads of money!
Much of this negative coverage has been based on the concept of fairness. As we say in our media training and crisis communication training, the most powerful conventional and social media stories essentially come back to whether something is fair or not. Your mum and dad might have told you when you were young that life isn’t fair, but we still desperately want to believe the contrary. Any company, organisation or individual who seems to be acting unfairly will be jumped all over by the media.
How could have P&O approached the situation?
Context is another key consideration when making these difficult decisions. P&O mentioned that the business had been hit severely by the pandemic, and this sounds believable. However, it could have worked harder to develop the narrative here and to explain more clearly and simply why and how it has been hit so hard. They could make the case more cogently that horrible news for these redundancies are for any of the staff impacted, if the company took the easy route and avoided making them, many more people would also lose their jobs.
The BBC is one of many news organisations to do vox pops with workers.
One talked about how he’d worked for the company for 22 years, adding, “it was our lives…our families have grown up knowing that this is what we do. It’s ended within a matter of hours.” The most apparent emotion from this former employee shows how important the human element is in these situations and how companies can easily find themselves playing Goliath to a David that engenders far more sympathy than they do.
Why should my firm participate in crisis communications training?
The media will always stand up for the little person against a large organisation, but this shows how those large organisations need to be even more thoughtful and human in their communications. Skilful in the communications emphasising the human element themselves.
Every company and organisation has to make difficult decisions once in a while. But by doing so in a sensitive, thoughtful way and expressing genuine concern and human sympathy, they can limit the damage to their image and brand reputation and, in rare cases, even enhance it.