A corporate leader once described layoffs as “site rationalizations”—as he was accepting an award for his exemplary communication skills.
If that’s a criterion of success, someone ought to give Citigroup an award.
In a remarkably convoluted press release on Wednesday, the banking giant announced it would lay off 11,000 employees. Several communication professionals say the press release is so bad it insults employees and gives the media carte blanche to interpret the news as it wishes.
“This is textbook of the old way of writing a press release,” said Jim Ylisela, a veteran journalist and communications consultant. “It is so perfectly bad, from start to finish.”
Here’s a look at what went wrong—and what you can do to avoid such mistakes.
The press release, headlined “Citigroup Announces Repositioning Actions to Further Reduce Expenses and Improve Efficiency,” begins with this paragraph:
“Citigroup today announced a series of repositioning actions that will further reduce expenses and improve efficiency across the company while maintaining Citi’s unique capabilities to serve clients, especially in the emerging markets. These actions will result in increased business efficiency, streamlined operations and an optimized consumer footprint across geographies.”
Mention of the layoffs doesn’t occur until the bottom of the third paragraph.
Ylisela calls the release “classically bad.”
“It has a really, really bad headline and contains the worst possible verb one could choose—repositioning. That’s the kind of verb you use when you don’t want people to know what you’re doing.”
As Ylisela puts it, the writers of the release fell in love with “repositioning” and use it nearly every paragraph.
The quote from CEO Michael Corbat isn’t any better—it might even be worse. In the second paragraph of the release, Corbat says:
“These actions are logical next steps in Citi’s transformation. While we are committed to—and our strategy continues to leverage—our unparalleled global network and footprint, we have identified areas and products where our scale does not provide for meaningful returns. And we will further increase our operating efficiency by reducing excess capacity and expenses, whether they center on technology, real estate or simplifying our operations.”
The quote lacks any trace of humanity, explains Ylisela.
“Why wouldn’t the guy say, ‘It’s never easy to lay off people’? Instead they sound like they’re talking about saving expenses as if they’re saving on the light bill.”
Remember all your audiences
Any company regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) must disclose certain information to investors, but Jim Buckley, executive vice president and partner at investor relations firm Sharon Merrill, points out that how these companies frame such a disclosure is up to them. In other words, don’t blame the SEC for a lousy press release.
“Regulations don’t [prevent] folks from writing a good press release,” he says.
Buckley explains layoff announcements as a balancing act that affects a number of audiences, including employees and shareholders.
“Layoffs are a classic thing that are good news on Wall Street, not good for employees,” he says.
According to Ylisela, Citi failed at communicating to all of its audience segments.
“The walls between internal and external communications are no longer,” he says. “Organizations need to craft messages for both audiences that are consistent and complementary.”
He describes the release as insulting to employees and subterfuge for the media.
Becky Gaylord, a former journalist turned PR consultant, says that although she sympathizes with the people writing the release—they almost certainly felt pressure from the C-suite—they should have fought harder because the announcement leaves Citi vulnerable to media outlets that will translate the release as they see fit.
“You haven’t even given the journalist any quotes that are pithy, so they’ll go out and get others,” Gaylord says.
Good for the bottom line?
Despite the poorly written release, the Citi stock price is on the move, ticking up 2.14 percent by midday. If the announcement moved shares in the right direction, does all this criticism of Citi’s communication count for nothing?
Not a chance, says Ylisela.
“The stock always goes up when a company announces that it’s cutting expenses—that’s how the market reacts—but it’s temporary,” he explains. “They’ve ignored the other side, or buried it so far deep it’s hard to find.”
Ylisela says companies must think long-term. It’s important for employee morale and public relations—both of which affect the bottom line—to craft messages that appeal to multiple audiences, he says.
Tips for clear communication
Ylisela and Gaylord offered several guidelines to remember should you ever find yourself in the unenviable position of drafting a layoff announcement:
Don’t duck the bad news. Journalists will find it, no matter how deep you bury the news. State it clearly, and work on framing the message, so the media doesn’t frame it for you.
Show some compassion and humility in the CEO quote. Don’t cast the CEO as a money-hungry robot who looks at employees as if they’re nothing but line items. Instead, quote him mentioning how difficult it is to let people go.
Use stronger verbs. Instead of deploying passive words, opt for something more descriptive. Reporters will never use the term “repurposing” to refer to layoffs—unless, of course, they’re mocking you—but they might write “shed jobs” if they see it in your press release. “Citigroup is shedding 11,000 jobs” is much better than “Citigroup axes 11,000 employees.”
Write for multiple audiences. Don’t forget that many employees are reading your press releases and that they will form an opinion about the company and CEO based on them—regardless of how Wall Street reacts.