Just because you’re bigger doesn’t mean you’re better. Even the biggest business in a given industry isn’t immune to mistakes. But if they can be foreseen, that can add embarrassment to an already unpleasant situation. Reality can turn to be quite different than your expectations.

You’ve heard that old expression, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? Well, here’s a case where that might apply.

That was the situation at Chicago-based PR agency giant Edelman last June when CEO Richard Edelman announced that his firm was planning to lay off 390 of its employees (about 7% of their global staff of about 6,000) enacting salary reductions between 5% and 20% scaled by compensation level and other cost-reducing actions. Edelman cited that the measures were necessary in light of what the CEO called, “a succession of body blows” to their business, affected every branch in the world.1

Such announcements are unpleasant to make under any circumstances, but this one included an additional sting – three months earlier, Richard Edelman released a statement to his global staff (which the press picked up of course) promising them that there would be no Covid-19 related layoffs.2 It was a well-intended gesture, based on the financial outlook at the time.

But as many of us saw in 2020, the fallout from a worldwide pandemic can be rather unpredictable. And Edelman’s situation just a few months later turned out to be quite different than they had anticipated. Heavy revenue losses due to circumstances beyond Edelman’s control had forced these necessary moves. Of course, no one can fault them for not knowing what the future would bring – this was uncharted territory for the world economy.

But that would be small consolation for about a certain 7% of the workforce – they were the ones that many of them likely endured further injury. Perceiving that their jobs were safe, they may have made major financial and life decisions. What’s more, in making a promise they couldn’t actually keep, Edelman employees were given a false sense of security and the subsequent reversal would landed with an even tougher emotional shock.

But the takeaway that would reverberate most in the press was CEO Richard Edelman’s broken promise.

AdAge: Latest Agency Layoffs and Furlough Measures in Response to the Pandemic

Business Insider: Edelman insiders describe layoffs at the PR giant after the CEO promised there wouldn’t be job cuts

Chicago Tribune: Chicago-based PR firm Edelman to lay off 390 employees due to COVID-19 losses

PRovoke: Edelman Laying Off 390 Employees Across Global Workforce

When media outlets reported the decision, they also reminded their audiences of Edelman’s now meaningless declaration that layoffs wouldn’t happen.

And so we come the crux of the matter – trust.

Trust isn’t just given – it’s hard earned and even harder to regain after losing it. And being a PR firm, Edelman knows this all too well. Making promises involving things you can’t control is never a wise move, as circumstances can change in a heartbeat – you may put yourself into a position where you have to go back on what was at the time your sincere word. As genuine as you are, the court of public opinion is not likely to see things your way.

Regrettably, Edelman was being genuine but also fell into this trap – and sent the message that they couldn’t be taken at their word and also gave his firm a reason to be embarrassed. You can add those two to the “succession of body blows” Mr. Edelman cited when he made his “no layoffs” reversal.

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  1. Washkuch, Frank. “Edelman Cuts Staff by Nearly 7%.” PR Week, 2 June 2020, prweek.com/article/1684986/edelman-cuts-staff-nearly-7.
  2. Rogers, Danny. “Richard Edelman tells global staff: ‘No job losses due to coronavirus’.” PR Week, March 2020, prweek.com/article/1678546/richard-edelman-tells-global-staff-no-job-losses-due-coronavirus.