Helping bad news go down easier

A man looks at his pink slip

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: There's likely to be more bad news out of Detroit today. U.S. automakers will release their sales figures from last month. Analysts expect February's totals to drop below even January's numbers -- and those were the worst in almost 30 years.

Faced with one of the weakest economies in the country, Michigan companies are no stranger to bad news. The state's Chamber of Commerce even sponsored seminars to teach small companies how to deliver bad tidings to their employees. From Michigan Radio, Dustin Dwyer reports.


Dustin Dwyer: Rick Kamel has been a public relations consultant in Michigan for over a decade. It's been a decade of some very bad news. Here's how Kamel describes his job:

Rick Kamel: I kind of do the same thing that Wonderbra does: I don't change anything, I just reposition it so it looks better.

Kamel is speaking in a small classroom at Walsh College, about 30 miles outside of Detroit. It says something about the Michigan economy that only about a dozen people showed up for this seminar. Many big companies here already have plenty of experience delivering bad news.

Kamel is here to help smaller ones who may be new to it. He rolls through a series of tips for how to announce layoffs. One tip: avoid cliches, like "We are a family."

Kamel: You know what, we're not family -- you're an employer, I'm an employee, that's OK. But you wouldn't layoff or fire your mom, OK?

Kamel also deconstructs the media a bit. He says reporters like me will cast companies in one of four roles: expert, rescuer, villain or victim.

Kamel: And sometimes, you can play the victim. Sometimes I've positioned my, "Oh, due to cutbacks, we're unable to," or "Because the federal government's changed the rule, we aren't able to provide."

If that sounds a little manipulative, well, that's PR for you. But learning to massage the message can help companies, and not just with getting better press coverage.

Patrick Dimet runs a small steel fabrication business in Michigan. He's cut his workforce before.

Patrick Dimet: I hate to look at a guy and lay him off.

After going through the bad news seminar, though, Dimet says he's got some new ideas.

Dimet: The thing I got out of this was putting that positive spin on it, letting them know. And also letting them know the truth, where everything sits, why is it that they're getting laid off.

Of course, no matter how he spins or explains it, those people will still be out of a job. Dimet says his goal is to not make anyone angry -- so when things turn around and he's hiring again, they'll come back.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, I'm Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

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