Yes, it’s a big no-no — provided you care about your job. And right now I don’t. I have really enjoyed my company, which has some great people. And I have a great boss. But when you are a PR manager for a company that is PR-ignorant (no, make that PR-hostile) the battle is entirely up hill.
A few days ago my entire department was summoned to an impromptu meeting where it was announced that a considerable number of people were about to be layed off. My jaw literally dropped. My company is making a major announcement that is inevitably going to get picked up by the media and they never talked to their PR person about it? WTF??
I went back to my desk and wrote emails to my supervisor and her own boss asking what the messages were in case the media called. My own supervisor, who I hold in very high regard, was away on vaction with no email. I called her cell phone and she told me to divert calls to the CFO and investor relations people. I immediately contacted them, and to my total shock, both were out of the office and unavailable.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with the role of the PR person. In short, it’s to be prepared with a strategy of communication, to make sure you are armed with messages and talking points before they are needed, and to tell your company’s story in the most positive light. Well, there’s a lot more to it, but those are the keys.
So step back with me: Here is a publicly traded, multi-billion-dollar company announcing staff layoffs….and their financial spokespeople are out of town! Not a single thought given to what the media might say, or who should answer their questions. When I heard the IR people were out, I knew I was sunk. I was on my own with nothing but my quick wits and silver tongue.
And then it happened, while I was at lunch. My cell phone rang and it was a reporter who heard the bad news and wanted to talk. I told him I needed half an hour to get him a spokesperson. I ran back to find that every single executive was out of town except our president, who’s relatively new. He was in a meeting with seven or eight high-level execs. We had never met (imagine, the company didn’t think they needed to introduce the PR manager to the company president). I held my breath and walked into his ofice and interrupted his meeting, telling him we needed to talk.
He was extremely understanding and he was utterly shocked to hear we didn’t have a process for planning in advance for announcements. Well, we do have a process that I wrote in my original PR plan for the company — but it was simply ignored. He helped me write a brief statement so I could understand the background, but we had only a few minutes. I was told to act as spokesperson and when I called the reporter, he asked a lot of tough questions. I had to give the best answers I could under the circumstances. (Usually you prepare a Q & A well in advance that anticipates all these questions and their best answers; my company won’t have any of that.)
So the article appears, and my CEO (not the president) gets bent out of shape because he didn’t like some of its mesages. But shit happens, especially when you have no plan and no support.
Remember, my supervisor’s supervisor never even answered my e-mail many hours earlier asking for help. So I was less than thrilled when she wrote an email last night chiding me for the “bad quote.” She couldn’t find the time to email when I was asking for urgent help, but after the fact it was no problem. She ended by saying, “Next time, follow the script, please.” To which I replied:
I had no script. I was on my own, and the reporter called. I tried to get [CFO]to talk but he was boarding a plane. The reporter did mangle my quote at the end but that’s not an excuse. I take total responsibility for all I do, and I hope everyone else does. I hope you told [CEO] I was on my own and stood up for me. I am very good when I know our talking points and messages. When left on my own without a clue and with zero support I do the best I can. You didn’t even respond to my email yesterday when I said I was concerned about the media calling. I tried to get us prepared, but no one responded. As Donald Rumsfeld said, ‘We went into war with the army we have.’ [CEO] says it was a bad quote; did he or you or anyone else help me craft a better one? How long did it take us to prepare for this announcement? Was it totally impossible for us to prepare for the media reaction? Could we have spent 10 minutes of preparation time to move from reactive mode to pro-active mode?
I have never worked in an environment where I was so detached from the decision makers and left to guess what our messages are. It is not satisfactory to me. I have won this company more coverage than it’s ever had in just a few short months, I articulated all of our solutions messages in the white papers I wrote, yet I am not consulted when we make a major announcement. That is called being set up to fail and it is not acceptable. If you want to lay me off, please let me know. I don’t want to be set up to fail you.
Look, for $X0,000 a year and with zero support, I have given you everything you could have dreamed of. Six approved case studies, our first News page on our Web site, five white papers that I volunteered to do that would have cost you $25,000, the annual report… All that, but no one trusts me enough to talk to me in advance and help me prepare talking points.
So please, either treat me with the respect I deserve at this point or let me go. I am used to working at the side of the decision makers, helping them with all they do, setting up appointments wherever they travel to. Here, I am ignored, and then when the s+it hits the fan I’m blamed. For $X0,000 a year, it’s really not worth it. And I don’t even get covered parking. With 23 years of media and journalism experience and all I won for [company name].
Thanks for listening and excuse my passion. It’s only because I care about what I do, I have a vision for this company and I have never let you down. Quite the contrary.
I cc’d it to the president, the CEO and my immediate suprvisor and sent it last night. I admit I’d had some wine with dinner before I received the “use the script” email that set me off. But I meant every word. It is a truly sublime feeling when you don’t care and have nothing to lose. Everytime I hear them saying the words, “You’re fired,” I hear another voice that says, “Taiwan.”
No one has said a word so far. I’m waiting here in limbo with a devil-may-care attitude. I just took them on their first press tour to New York and Boston, and it was an amazing success, and they promised to be more attentive to PR. So I’m worried they’ll try to get me to stay. Maybe I should just wear a sandwich billboard that says, “Please, lay me off now!”
As Drudge would say, developing….
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.