Every business understands how difficult hiring can be – until they reach an inflection point that requires a reduction in force (RIF), or layoffs rooted in structural and market-based changes. While hiring is tactically challenging, the emotional component of layoffs adds a more personal, complex layer for a business to manage. With all the collateral damage inherently present in a RIF, one of the most controllable pieces is its execution, which ultimately leads to how it’s received externally.   

Absent a sound communications strategy, the default assumption about layoffs is the business is failing. Unless proven otherwise, the media will say it, Twitter will say it, and competitors will say it. The good news is this harmful narrative can be pivoted away from, and there is a proven playbook to activate the pivot.

Bear in mind, neutral to positive reception of a RIF hinges on one golden rule: taking care of impacted employees, both emotionally and financially. Don’t let a sub-par HR strategy be the reason former employees are talking to the press, as it will become the central focus of the story and obstruct any potential remedies. 

Think of these tactics as a menu, not a checklist. No business is the same, and no business will be able to accomplish all of them in one RIF.

  • Give the exclusive to a trusted reporter. Because the default narrative is around a company’s failing health, the pivot should begin weeks before the public announcement. Granting a reporter exclusive access gives a business the best opportunity to pack all of its messaging into the initial coverage and shape the eventual story early and often. The exclusive will set the tone for subsequent coverage and other reporters will write off of the first piece. 

  • We misjudged where our real demand is. To pivot away from business health speculation, companies can simply explain their demand is somewhere else, point to rapid growth in that area, and address the RIF all in one message. Businesses running this playbook must take some of the blame for the misjudgement and express empathy for those who were impacted by the misjudgement. This strategy comes off as human and genuine, while simultaneously disarming rumors about a company’s long-term viability.

  • Announce a significant business change within days of the RIF. Whether the change is procedural, structural, pivoting to a new product, or reallocating resources towards an existing product, announcing an immediate change justifies the RIF and creates a tangential, more favorable media cycle.

  • Activate 3rd parties to help former employees. If possible, consider orchestrating landing places for employees impacted by the RIF. Have those landing places take to LinkedIn and social media, asking those who were let go to get in touch with their business. Reporters will see the activity and the industry’s movement to hire them will organically become the new story.

  • An unforeseen event changed our trajectory. Honesty goes a long way. If messaged correctly and with empathy, the event that catalyzed the RIF will become the story over the RIF itself. Now more than ever with the ongoing health pandemic, most people understand that certain outcomes cannot be predicted or controlled. Even under normal circumstances, an unforeseen event could come in the form of a black swan regulation or lawsuit that undermines a core business product. Be careful not to displace blame, but no business should fall on the sword when it’s not entirely their fault.   

There is no happy end to this storyline. Layoffs are a last resort tactic that alters the professional lives of impacted employees and the morale of employees whose jobs remain safe. Executing a well-received external strategy will soften the blow and accelerate a company’s ability to begin a new chapter.  


The Communications Guide to Layoffs
To help businesses handle the unprecedented turmoil of our economy and 
navigate the very real and very fast impact, we’ve developed a series 
of articles detailing best practices regarding layoff communications:
Part 1: The Reputational Risk of RIF
Part 3: Layoff Communications Don’ts
Part 4: Layoff Communications Do's
Part 5: Corporate PR Recommendations for COVID-19
Part 6: Managing Internal Layoff Communications
Part 7: Greenbrier Live - RIF Communications 101