This is an oldie, but goodie.
Layoffs are never good news. When it involves thousands of people, that’s really bad news. But trying to sugar-coat it as a good thing to your audience isn’t going to win public opinion over to your side—in fact it does the exact opposite. In CitiBank’s case, their “carefully worded” press release ended up making them look heartless (and reinforced a common corporate stereotype) and they were called out by the media for it.
Here’s the story…
In 2012, when Citibank was the third largest bank on the planet, they made the announcement that it would be letting go 11,000 employees— they made the usual and expected move to do so in a press release.1 Such a sizable event for the multinational corporation warranted for sure. After all, they were beholden to a massive and diverse audience (business partners, investors, industry leaders, etc.) that deserved to know.
It was business decision, and everyone would be aware of it. When Citibank decided to go the route of characterizing the downsizing as “repositioning actions” meant to “improve efficiency” in their press release, they went wrong.
How? Well, already we have what amounts to double-speak that creates a sense of a less-than-honest story. Plus, there was contradictory data.
It was so bad that Business Insider called them out in a story entitled, “Citigroup’s Press Release About Cutting 11,000 Jobs Gets A Gold Medal For Over-The-Top PR Speak.”
To put things into context, let’s start with the release’s title (read the entire release here) “Citigroup Announces Repositioning Actions to Further Reduce Expenses and Improve Efficiency.”
In news, there’s something called “burying the lede,” (nope, not a typo… ) In journalism, the lede refers to the intro section of a news story that is written to entice the reader to read the full story or hiding the most important and relevant part of a story within other distracting information.
And that’s what Citibank did right out of the gate.
The rest of their press release didn’t fare much better. In fact, the word “layoff” doesn’t appear anywhere.
Instead, they positioned the massive loss of jobs in what they must have reasoned would be more palatable language such as this (bolding added for emphasis):
“Approximately 35% of the fourth quarter repositioning charges are expected to be incurred in Global Consumer Banking, resulting in a reduction of approximately 6,200 positions…”
People aren’t fooled by flowery language, jargon or “writing around” the central theme – all these devices aren’t accidents. In fact, it ironically spotlights the source as implicitly acknowledging, (i.e. admitting to) to being the cause of the negative news. In short, the whole release feels like a long-winded self-justification for terminating thousands of people.
But there’s another level to their tactic that gives the release a tone deafness that emphasizes their snafu.
As if to make sure readers will see through their tactic, Citibank’s own CEO Michael Corbat included his own take on the matter (again, bolding added for emphasis):
“These actions are logical next steps in Citi’s transformation. While we are committed to – and our strategy continues to leverage – our unparalleled global network and footprint, we have identified areas and products where our scale does not provide for meaningful returns. And we will further increase our operating efficiency by reducing excess capacity and expenses, whether they center on technology, real estate or simplifying our operations.”2
(Who really talks like that when you are speaking to them?)
In other words, they fired people to save money. Got it. I can’t help but notice there’s no mention of regret about the (former) employees they’re affecting.
While Mr. Corbat’s framing may have been meant to appease Wall Street, who else thinks job losses are a good thing? Safe to say it’s not the vast majority of their audience.
Sure, Citibank never meant to insult or belittle employees, but their omissions and word choice left them open to criticism and a tarnished image. It was an opportunity to address their regret and add the proper necessity of the move.
Instead, Citibank was trying too hard to make themselves look like the good guys and not even acknowledge the human side of their story.
In addition, their release had contradictory data, and the media did not fail to notice. Where they said they were laying people off they also said those areas had the highest potential of growth. And I quote: “Get that? In the cities that have the highest growth potential, it’s “focusing” by reducing branches.”
There’s a very basic lesson that even the biggest companies with all their resources still fail to learn – Press releases are not about “spin” or merely making yourself look good – They’re about communicating real news that people can use – based off real communication, not “PR”…
This is where PR gets a bad name, folks. If it sounds like corporate speak to cover up what really happened, it is just that.
Truth is – layoffs suck. And those that have to do it feel very badly. That is real. It is life. It happens. Citibank could have appeased their shareholders and won some of the hearts of public by handling that press release in a very compassionate way— and still have gotten a good message in for Citibank. And the CEO would have come off a hero.
Public Relations is just that – relations with the public. And press releases are statements, put out to via the press, to improve and foster excellent relations with the public.
That is what makes you look good.
La Roche, Julia. “Citigroup’s Press Release About Cutting 11,000 Jobs Gets A Gold Medal For Over-The-Top PR Speak”, Business Insider, businessinsider.com/citigroups-press-release-corporate-speak-2012-12, December 5, 2012
BizCom in the News. “Citi Lays Off 11,000 and Blunders Press Release”, December 08, 2012