[Video] Taking A Deeper Dive: How Do Corporations Communicate Giving Back while Letting Employees Go?

May 29, 2020

how do corporations give back while letting employees go

TRANSCRIPT: Hi everyone. I’m Crayton Webb with Sunwest Communications and I’m joined today by three of my colleagues in our Corporate social Responsibility and Philanthropic Services department. Melissa Cameron, Senior Counsel, Lauren Dugger, Senior Managing Director, and Whitney Strauss, also Senior Counsel of Corporate Social Responsibility and Philanthropic Services.

So of course, hope you all are safe and well. Everybody’s in return-to-work mode or reopening mode. And Sunwest has had the pleasure of hosting a couple of webinars over the last few weeks, one on crisis communications amidst COVID-19, how to communicate effectively, and the other around corporate social responsibility and philanthropy and how the best brands are giving back and how philanthropies are poising themselves for a new world.

One of the questions that has come out in both of those two webinars is all about giving back from the corporate side, but also sharing difficult news. So in a nutshell, here’s the question that we wanted to do a deep dive on today, kind of a little mini webinar, if you will, and discuss with our team and, and hope that this is of value to you.

So how can a company or an organization best communicate and effectively tell the story of its charitable and philanthropic efforts as they step up in the midst of COVID-19 while at the same time, perhaps dealing with some very difficult financial situations as they deal with the bottom line to reduce payroll or overhead that could result in furloughs or layoffs. How do you do that?

So we thought we’d dig in a little bit today and discuss that, but let’s just go by alphabetical order. Melissa Cameron, what’s your take? How does a company do this? Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a matter of balance, right? I think what you don’t want to do is to go run out and buy a bunch of billboards or do TV commercials and promote and demonstrate how you’re donating and being philanthropic while at the same time the headlines in the newspapers are that you’re laying off thousands of employees.

I think you have to be grassroots about it. I think you’ve gotta be less PR and maybe more impact. I think you’ve got to be able to communicate regularly with your employees if you’re not already. You got to give them a snapshot of how you’re making decisions, right. And talk a little bit about intent. Transparency and empathy can really go a really long way.

These are unprecedented times. So our response to both the negative and the positive have to be unprecedented as well. We have to think about the community and we have to think about the health of our company. So there’s nothing wrong, I don’t think, with talking about that and being very frank about it.

I read an interesting quote from the CEO of Anthem, Gail Boudreaux, and she was very candid and talked very plainly that we have provided resources and relief to aid organizations, ensuring the safety of our employees, really intent, and despite the uncertainty – she says that out loud – it’s very uncertain times for us, for our company, she’s being very honest, we see a tremendous opportunity, though, to imagine what’s possible. And I love that phrase: Imagine what’s possible. So at one time you have delivering bad news, but at the other hand, you have such a positive look to the future. I think that’s a great way to balance the negative with the positive.

Let’s go to Lauren Dugger. Lauren, you’re no stranger to crisis communications, but don’t you think timing is important here? We had a phone call not long ago from an organization that was ready to make a major gift to a nonprofit organization, but within the same week had to internally announce layoffs. That can cause some problems.

Definitely. And I agree with everything that Melissa shared. But I think that just determining your audiences is important. Realizing that each audience needs possibly the same information but a different message, and delivered in a different way, and who’s going to deliver it, and the timing of that.

So like Melissa said, you don’t want to invite all the media out after you just, you know, laid off a bunch of folks from your company to see you giving money to someone else. That’s something that you can capture, take, you know, video, photographs, that sort of thing of. But you might want to wait a little while until you release that when times are not so uncertain and folks, you know, aren’t being laid off.

That said, I think a lot of people understand during this time that this kind of stuff is just happening. And a company announcing layoffs is not the only company in the country doing that. It’s unfortunately quite common. So, you know, balancing that fact with being honest, transparent, and really speaking as quickly as you can to your employees and other audiences is important.

Whitney Strauss, what’s your take? I love the quote, Melissa, that that was perfect. I think I agree with what Lauren and Melissa have said it. The timing is important. Being compassionate and showing empathy is really important in any kind of communications that you do, either if it’s bad news or good news. And I think that transparency and being very specific about those decisions builds trust in your brand. So as you’re delivering the bad news with layoffs of your employees, you can also be equally transparent and honest about your rationale behind giving that charitable contribution and where that is coming from too, and why you decided to do that. I’ve personally had to navigate this before, on the CSR side when a company was going through layoffs, but then also decided to make a charitable contribution.

I’ve also been on the other side as an employee going through furloughs. So building that trust in your leadership that they are being honest and transparent about why these decisions are being made and showing empathy. And I think timing of that is, is crucial.

And of course it’s not just black and white either, is it? Because a lot of companies see payroll as a long-term expense and obviously are having some trouble, but they see corporate social responsibility as an investment not only to help solve one of society’s problems, but in re-emerging and in helping their reputation and is often times – not always – but sometimes, a onetime cost.

I guess the other extreme, Melissa, is that some companies might choose to just go dark altogether and say, we’re not going to do anything. When in doubt, leave it out. But that’s a mistake too, isn’t it? Don’t you think?

There’s no question. If I had one piece of advice, it would be to do something. Doing nothing is really not a choice at this point. You can’t just bury your head in the sand. You have to be doing something. When you pick up any newspaper, turn on NPR,  you’re looking at YouTube, there are, everywhere, there are companies communicating what it is that they’re doing, even as small as in your regular communications.

Just reiterating what officials in your community are saying and having a message of hope and resiliency. And that can go a really long way. Yeah. Lauren, you’ve seen the other side, where companies have had to make difficult decisions about their grants and deliver difficult news. Whether you’re giving a grant or having to rescind one or not giving one that you’ve given traditionally, if you’re a company, what’s the best way to do that in difficult times?

Well, it’s important to communicate with those nonprofits quickly. If you’re going to give them a grant, that’s wonderful and they’re going to be very happy. If you have to cut the grant that was already committed or promised, that will be in issue as well. And you need to talk to them quickly and be honest and transparent that you hopefully you can become a partner with them again in the future, but this is just not the right time and you don’t have the finances to do that at this point.

And then for folks who are stopping a lot of their budget or cutting their budget for giving altogether, it’s important to, again, I think the most important audiences for that are your nonprofit partners and your employees so everyone understands what’s happening and that there’s a business rationale behind it.

And if you deliver the message in a way that is honest and transparent and compassionate, then it will be taken, even though it’s bad news, it will be taken as well as possible.

Yeah. You can’t ever forget that we’re always playing the long game and our communications are really how we do that. Right, Whitney?

Right. I was going to just add to that. If you are not creating your message and being proactive about that, someone’s going to create it for you. So even though it’s really difficult to share bad news, it’s so important to be proactive and share it as quickly as you can and be specific and transparent and also empathetic to your nonprofit partners that knowing that this is very difficult for them to receive and they’re also going through hard times, so I think recognizing that and communicating it as quickly as you can is really, really important. And also just letting them know it has nothing to do with their mission or anything else having to do with the partnership. You want to be sure to honor that in the future, and because you honor that partnership, you’re wanting to be as transparent and upfront as possible.

All right. So just a quick roundup. Last few words from each of you. What would just be your one piece of strongest advice to corporate social responsibility experts as they have either good news or bad news to communicate or any kind of news while we’re in these tumultuous times. Melissa, you first.

Just one? That’s going to be hard. Timely, I agree with Lauren. I’m going to steal from each one of my colleagues here. It’s gotta be timely. You have to demonstrate transparency and do it with honest intent.


Of course, agree with my colleagues as well. And also, you know, when you’re communicating in a timely manner, just make sure that you’re communicating to the audiences that need to be communicated to first. And make sure that the reasoning you’re giving them is valid and that it’s sensitive and compassionate and not just something that someone reads off of a paper. You’re working with human beings and so you want to be sensitive to that fact and be as honest, but caring as possible.

And they’re just so brilliant. I’m just gonna borrow from what they said too. Compassionate communication. That’s what I always go to and how you are delivering that to your various stakeholders and making that as personalized as you can, because these relationships with your employees and your nonprofit partners, any kind of stakeholders, have built your brand. So how you deliver that news will be something that the public and all of those stakeholders will remember moving forward, whether it’s bad or good news.

Yeah. And I guess I would conclude just by saying, it kind of goes back to two of the basic questions around all communications, which is what do you want to accomplish and who’s your most important audience? Because if you’re a legacy family owned company, you want to make sure your employees stick around for a long time.

But you’ve had to make some difficult layoffs, perhaps announcing a new philanthropic gift with a new partner. Maybe, as was suggested in the conversation earlier, maybe it oughta wait. On the other hand, if it’s a longstanding partner that you’ve had for 10 or 20 years, it might make more sense and it might be more palatable throughout your communications. Well, the lights are going out here, so that’s a sign that we’ve talked long enough. Thank you all for joining us again. Thank you, Melissa Cameron, Lauren Dugger, Whitney Strauss all with Sunwest Communications Corporate Social Responsibility and Philanthropic Services department. I’m Crayton Webb. Be sure to check us out on and don’t hesitate to let us know if we can ever be of service to you. Thanks so much and hope to see you all soon. Have a great day.