Worker-company communication critical

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Published: January 1,2001

JACKSON — It is a not so uncommon problem among companies, large and small alike: a member of the media calls up an executive staff member to ask about a rumor circulating about downsizing, the loss of a major account or a management team reshuffling.

And although many companies have had to deal with such issues before, sometimes it might be hard to determine what the correct action to take is.

A couple of the GodwinGroup’s specialties are dealing with crises and issues management and sometimes this deals with employee-related issues.

“Internal communications is really important,” said Donna Ritchey, senior vice president and director of public relations at GodwinGroup.

Joey Lee, media issues manager for GodwinGroup, said there several things a company needs to think about when dealing with such a situation. The first is the employee’s right to confidentiality. The second is contacting the legal department about the issue in order to avoid any nasty consequences that might result from the situation. Communication with external and internal audiences is a very important aspect of bringing resolution to a case, and addressing the situation as discreetly and honestly as possible is just as important. Finally, companies need to realize there is not much that can be said in such cases.

Vicki Harper-Blake, vice president and group supervisor in public relations at GodwinGroup, said when the media calls up it gives company executives the opportunity to bring up their company’s track record and good employment practices.

Ritchey suggested companies speak to the media in the following way: “ I can’t speak to that issue, but I can say that our company has been in business for…years.”

All a company can do is say they are going to address the situation at a proper place and time and do so fairly for all the parties involved, she added.

“Don’t respond to rumor or innuendo,” Ritchey said.

Oftentimes companies use GodwinGroup in order to help develop an exit strategy for their executives and help them make the internal announcement. But as a company gets into a litigious situation that can change the dynamic quite a bit.

“The important thing is to have a communication strategy,” Ritchey said. “The news media is not the best place for this to play out in.”

There are a lot of different things to think about during such delicate situations, such as employee rights, the company’s reputation and supplier-vendor relationships.

“You address the situation and try to have an active open communication as best you can,” Ritchey said. “There’s not one single solution.”

Chris Ray, CEO of the Ramey Agency, has recently had to deal with the loss of his agency’s founder and CEO, as well as the end of the agency’s contract with the Mississippi Development Authority. He developed the Bacon, Eggs and Chris program in order to communicate more effectively with staff members and stop rumors before they become out of control.

At Bacon, Eggs and Chris, Ray gets together for breakfast with five or six people at a time with no set agenda to listen to what’s on people’s minds and answer questions. He has found it to be much easier to communicate with employees in a smaller forum than the typical monthly staff meeting.

“It’s a chance to ask and answer questions,” he explained. “People have felt more comfortable asking questions with four or five people around the breakfast table than in a room full of staff members at a staff meeting.”

When dealing with the disgruntled ex-employee who calls up the media and starts rumors about the company, Ray said the more proactive a company is about a situation and the more the situation can be thought out in advance, the better.

“If you’re proactive in addition to being simply reactive and defensive, I think your chances are better,” he said.

Anne Sanders, a partner at Brunini Grantham Grower and Hewes PLLC, deals with many situations involving companies and company employees. She suggested that companies put untruths to rest by assuring employees that rumors are not true, and then take the opportunity to talk about the good points of the company.

“Then turn it to your advantage to pat yourself on the back,” she said.

Rather than filing a lawsuit against a company employee or a former company employee over such a situation, Sanders suggested that companies turn the other cheek because of possible defamation claims.

“Do you really want to fight this fight?” she asked. “People in the news business are probably accustomed to things like this being reported. In most instances (a company’s reputation) has not been damaged (by rumors picked up by the media). I always have my clients take a hard look at whether the risk and the cost are worth it. If there really hasn’t been any harm, they’re really doing themselves more harm than good.”

Sanders conceded there might be circumstances in which a company would want to consider taking legal action but said, “that’s a great exception to the general rule of good business.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.


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