How Microsoft announces layoffs will show the company's PR IQ

Crisis communications expert spells out how smart companies handle job cuts

If Microsoft does pull the layoff trigger today, as many expect, the company will face public perception problems if it doesn't make the smart moves, a crisis communications expert said Wednesday.

"Layoffs are always perceived to be potential crises," said Gene Grabowski, senior strategist at Levick, a Washington, D.C. firm that specializes in corporate communications, especially in advising firms on dealing with high-pressure situations. Grabowski has advised numerous companies on how to handle cut-backs, including law and insurance firms and large manufacturers.

Microsoft is expected to announce large layoffs as early as today, according to several online reports, including ones by the New York Times and Bloomberg. The former, citing people briefed on the decision, said that Microsoft's human resources group has reserved conference rooms for today, a signal that meetings with laid-off workers will take place.

The newspaper also reported that the layoffs will be the largest in the company's 39-year history. Microsoft's last large-scale layoff was in 2009, when the firm cut loose nearly 5,800 employees.

CEO Satya Nadella last week issued his first mission statement for the company, a 3,100-word missive that, said analysts, was in many ways written to prepare employees for a purge.

"Layoffs are very personal, they affect everyone and their families, both those laid off and those who remain," said Grabowski, and it behooves a company -- whether Microsoft, which has nearly 130,000 employees, or a small private firm with less than 100 -- to make the smart moves that can lessen the shock for those impacted as well as limit damage to its reputation and how it's perceived by investors, customers and partners.

"Companies should communicate to employees with a simple message," said Grabowski, of the first step firms should take. "That message should be clear so that people can repeat it, and they will, accurately. The internal message should also be identical to the external message, because today the main source of external news is internal messages, distributed by social media."

Discrepancies between what those inside Microsoft hear, and what people not employed by the company read, is just asking for trouble, as it creates the impression that the company is being disingenuous, even duplicitous. People will seize on that in a heartbeat, and spread it on social outlets, like Twitter and Facebook.

"Uniformity of messages is imperative," Grabowski said. "Layoffs are situations where people are more likely to have an opinion, and they'll express it."

Microsoft should also reach out to the media as soon as possible, if only to pre-empt a rash of negative commentary, to tell its side of the story. Failure to do so will only leave a vacuum that others will fill. And most times, that vacuum is filled with very negative news.

"They should get out the news and onto social media before anyone else," Grabowski advised. "That message should be the same as what's used internally, it should not be any different. I'd get to reporters and bloggers quickly, all those who cover the company. And not in a press conference or a statement."

A press conference, said Grabowski, is too risky, because as a rule they're difficult to manage. "Reporters are a lot bolder in a pack," said Grabowski. "Try to reach them one-on-one, and give each something useful and unique, or apparently unique."

The choice of who talks to the press is also important, Grabowski said. "Companies have to be very, very careful about picking spokespeople. It's always best if they have a person who appears to be sympathetic. It shouldn't be a lawyer, and probably not the CEO unless he or she has a good relationship with the media and the public, someone who is perceived as a nice person."

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