Carat Mishap Offers Lessons in HR, PR and Accountability

Media Agency Should've Known Better Than Trying to Bury the Story

By Published on .

These are tough times for all of us in the marketing and media businesses and they're likely to get tougher, which is why I hope you read our report on the Carat management team's slipshod approach to communicating layoffs as a cautionary tale.

I'm guessing you at least saw it. It was not only highly trafficked by Ad Age readers but also picked up by The Wall Street Journal, Wired, MediaPost and many others. The comments and e-mails flooded in, focusing mostly on the agency's management of the affair and particularly on the chief people officer -- whether she should be criticized for accidentally sending out an "all-internal" e-mail intended for other senior managers that contained the agency's planned "messaging" for staff, clients and vendors.

However unfortunate the CPO can consider herself, she has to be held accountable. Anyone in a senior management position -- and a "chief people officer" is, I presume, senior -- recognizes that part of the reason he receives a fatter check than 95% of the population is because he's going to be held accountable for business performance, mismanagement and sometimes even (apparently) honest mistakes.

That brings us to Carat's next mistake: the anachronistic belief that it could put the genie back in the bottle. From the moment that e-mail was sent to all, this was going to become public knowledge. You might even argue it had been disseminated widely enough that it was already "published." These days we can count our blessings if the timing of our ablutions don't get posted somewhere (one blogger recently dedicated a whole post to an unremarkable, three-line exchange with an Ad Age reporter). So responding with no comment on the error other than a declaration of surprise that we were going to write about it is bizarre. Having IT retract the offending e-mail and trying to kill the story wouldn't have worked 10 years ago, and it's certainly outmoded now. A media shop should know that better than anyone.

And where was the contrition? An apology doesn't rectify the damage, but it doesn't hurt. (To be fair, CEO Sarah Fay did sound apologetic in the Journal article that was published later on.)

Some commenters said layoffs are too sensitive an issue for a publication to report on. But business journalists regard hirings and firings as important news for their readers, often indicative of larger trends. Most journalists I know take little pleasure in such grim news. It is rare that we haven't been affected by job cuts ourselves at some point, and we are aware we're discussing people's livelihoods.

Several others said Ad Age shouldn't have published Carat's "messaging" PowerPoint. Yet the "restructuring communication" was a big part of the story and almost as ugly as the mistake made in sending it to the entire agency. It shows an attempt to hide behind jargon and spin the cuts as helping clients "innovate."

One of the people who complained, anonymously, about the publication of those documents said they were standard-issue, used often by many large companies (begging the question of why he/she would object to them being published). One expert I spoke to agreed they were fairly run-of-the-mill; another disagreed, finding them jargon-packed and offensive.

Regardless, isn't it about time all companies stopped this doublespeak, especially where people's jobs are concerned? If you want to disguise your new brand positioning by talking in meaningless words, you're just wasting the opportunity to tell your story, but playing bullshit bingo when it comes to layoffs is offensive.

Getting fired is difficult to take. Getting "right-sized" is worse.
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