I was not alone in my disgust when I heard that Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO and chairman and habitual foot-in-mouth public speaker, held a town hall meeting with employees to explain why he was cutting their retirement benefits. While times have certainly been hard for AOL (though you wouldn’t know looking at Tim’s $12 million paycheck in 2012), the explanation given was viewed as an outright attack on his own employees.
Specifically, Armstrong cited two unnamed employees who had “distressed babies” that allegedly cost the company “a million dollars each” to care for.
Never mind that AOL might not have actually paid a million dollars out of pocket for the children’s care given the likely insurance discounts and coverage and never mind that this comment potentially raises some employee privacy issues, the remark was so on-its-face callous that it immediately breached the walls of AOL and spilled over into the news media, which ignited with schadenfreude-like glee. The result was a dip in the company’s stock price, a reversal in the decision to cut benefits and an apology for the insensitive remark.
Armstrong’s lapse in judgment (and humanity) is a reminder to managing partners, chief marketing officers and other high-ranking personnel that your internal communications have the ability to directly impact your external reputation. Never has this been more true in the age of digital media, where anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter handle has access to a global communications platform. In fact, one of the greatest blows to AOL’s public reputation during this whole mess occurred when the mother of one of the “distressed babies” (and the wife of an AOL employee) penned an article for Slate.com. It’s a very moving piece, and it puts a face on the statistic that Armstrong so casually mentions as being the contributing factor to why his entire employee base must suffer a cut in benefits.
Such an emotionally gripping personal account is the worst kind of negative PR because of its sheer effectiveness. And while AOL could have instituted a policy regarding what is and is not allowed to be communicated outside its walls, little could really be done to curb the wife of an employee from going public, not to mention the additional negative publicity that AOL would certainly garner if it came to light that the organization was, in effect, stifling reasonable employee expression.
No, what AOL could have done instead was to ensure Tim Armstrong never said anything about “distressed babies” in the first place. If cutting benefits was truly a necessity, it could have consulted its PR, marketing and communications personnel to determine the best way for Armstrong to communicate this news. As part of this internal communications plan, it could have also determined how to craft the message externally and to anticipate any negative criticisms, particularly with regard to the contentious point of Armstrong’s salary. Doing this proactive strategizing would have helped to curb a blunder and avert a crisis situation.
A law firm’s internal communications strategy is the first line in public reputation management. After all, your employees should be your most outspoken brand ambassadors, even more so than the clients you service. If your internal culture is rotting your organization from the inside out, you have little hope of improving public perception. True, PR pros can work magic, but no matter how much you polish a turd, it’s still a turd.
So do not neglect internal communications as a part of your law firm PR and marketing strategy. The happier your attorneys and your staff are, the more they will tell the world about their satisfaction, whether through word of mouth or in a more public way, such as social media.
What are some of your internal communications best practices? Leave a comment or contact Terry M. Isner at firstname.lastname@example.org.