Communications: getting the message out

It was a cold, wet winter’s Thursday afternoon a couple of years ago when the
phone rang at my desk and a journalist from the local evening paper asked me for
details on the number of redundancies planned for a local weaver. I had to ask
him to leave it with me until I called the corporate insolvency firm that
retained me for more details. A rather hurried chat informed me that 75% of the
workforce would be laid off and a buyer would be sought for the business.

This tale is a classic example of worst practice but is too often the case
when communications professionals are brought in to support the insolvency
process. PR professionals are called upon as an after-thought to manage the
inevitable calls from the press and are left with little opportunity to do more
than react to media enquiries. This type of fire fighting has a value by
allowing the insolvency team to focus on the business and managing the
information flow to the media. But there is another way.

Insolvency practitioners are tasked to maximise the value in the business on
behalf of the creditors. They will explore a number of options from sale, as an
on-going concern or assets, to restructure or refinance. Communications is a
vital part of holding onto the value in a business, from staff retention to
managing suppliers or the customer base. An effective corporate communications
programme will also position a business well for sale and support wider

With this in mind it is important that communications be placed within the
planning process rather than tagged on as an after-thought. Some simple steps
can ensure that structured communications plays its part.

Internal communications

Retaining experienced staff is a key part of maintaining a viable business. A
structured internal communications plan should be developed with HR. This will
include management of information flows, from team briefings to intranets, and
the preparation of managed messages for the senior management to ensure
consistency of communication.

Managing suppliers and customers

Regular and structured communication will be vital to ensure suppliers and
customers don’t walk away. A clear communication of the future plans for the
business and the current activity to secure that future is vital to ensure
stakeholders stay onboard.

Managing the press

A company in trouble is a great story for local and trade press. They will
demand regular updates and revisit the story until a conclusion is reached. It
may be tempting to offer no comment and get on with a to do list, but this is a
missed opportunity.

In any crisis communication it is important to minimise the negative and
maximise the positive. The choice is clear – to manage the media relations to
your advantage or let it run its course with no influence.

Embrace the digital age

All stakeholders will start a search for information with the internet.
Ensure that the web is embraced as an efficient, cost effective way to get your
message out in real time and with no editorial bias. In a crisis situation key
search terms can be purchased to drive traffic to the website of your choice.
Ensure that it is kept updated and a senior member of staff has responsibility
for managing this process.

Get the experts in early

Most communications professionals are used to working under non-disclosure
agreements (NDAs). The earlier they are involved in the process the more value
they can add to internal and external communications.

It is important to find trusted counsel in these situations. A number of
sources are available from asking your local professional services community to
visiting the website of the Public Relations Consultants Association

These simple steps will ensure that structured communications adds real value
to your work and will also help to ensure that a PR consultant somewhere in the
land doesn’t get an unexpected media call on a wet Thursday afternoon

Case study

A large print company decided to consolidate its operations into areas of
specialist print. This meant two of its sites faced closure unless a buyer could
be found. As a communications agency we were called in to manage the process
both internally and externally.

A planning meeting was held with the senior management to agree messages and
timelines for communications to staff, unions and external stakeholders. The
plan was implemented internally through the HR department and existing line
management structures. It was made clear that a buyer would be sought and the
business would be run as a going concern for an indeterminate period.

Although this was unsettling for staff there was no significant uplift in
numbers leaving the company. Regular updates were given and the staff kept
informed through the process.

External audiences were engaged directly through company contacts, the
corporate website and the media to ensure that all parties understood the
business was a going concern, profitable and seeking a buyer. A number of
briefings were held with key press to ensure that the message was clearly
understood and not a ‘management smokescreen’.

The process took four months and ultimately a trade buyer was found for one
of the sites. The sale resulted in a small number of redundancies in
administrative functions. A buyer for the second site was not found and it
closed with the loss of 150 jobs.

Professional communications supported this process by keeping key
stakeholders engaged with the business and supporting the sale process. By
dealing with the media through a well-briefed agency the management team was
able to focus on the job in hand..

Nathan Lane is managing director at

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