Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Public relations and euphemisms: Shel Holtz’s advice

At one of the Fortune 500 companies where I directed corporate communications, many years ago, a reorganization consolidated some of the company’s business units. In a game of executive musical chairs, one high-ranking execuricw was left without a job, writes Shel Holtz of Holtz Communication + Technology in his blog.

The press release the company issued used the typical jargon claiming that the poor fellow was leaving the company “to pursue other opportunities.”

Journalists are wise to this kind of euphemism. A night copy editor at one of the dailies covering the company ran the story under the headline, “So long, pal.” The clueless leaders of this company — my bosses — reacted to the headline by insisting that I call the lead business reporter who covered the company and inform him that we weren’t going to deal with him any longer.

The headline may have been snarky, but the “pursuing other opportunities” phrase, along with the lack of any substantive information at all, invited that snarkiness. Of course, the reason companies resort to such vague, non-communicative lingo is that the separation agreement reached with the departing executive insists on it, presumably because they don’t want anybody to learn the truth of the matter. I’ve often wondered how people can rise to such lofty positions in big companies with such thin skins.

This experience leapt to mind as I read a post by PR luminary Jim Horton about a similar announcement from iRobot announcing that its co-founder, Helen Greiner, had resigned as the company’s chairman to be replaced by her fellow co-founder Colin Aigle, who was serving as CEO.

The most Greiner or iRobot have had to say about the reason for the former chairman’s departure is that it was a mutual decision. This, according to the C|Net report, has fueled speculation about what really happened, suggesting that Greiner’s departure was not entirely voluntary. This will come as no surprise to people working in corporate communications who know that, in the absence of authoritative information, second-tier sources and gossip-mongers will rush in to fill the void. Information abhors a vacuum.

As Horton notes, it is the lack of transparency that sparked the rumor. “Wouldn’t it be better just to say that X left because she had a disagreement with the board, or she is tired and wants to move on, or she has another opportunity she wishes to pursue? That, at least, provides a context for stakeholders,” he says, adding, “Silence speaks louder than words.”

The next time an executive leaves your company’s ranks, consider the novel approach of just truthfully telling what happened. It may cause some discomfort, but that’s better than inaccurate speculation affecting perceptions of the organization.


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