For a while there, companies seemed to be vying with each other to see who could produce the biggest layoffs, all in the name of becoming lean, mean competitive machines. Wall Street rewarded their efforts by bidding their stocks ever upward.
CEOs would say that while downsizing was never a pleasant task, a relative handful of employees had to be sacrificed to keep the main corporate body healthy.
AT&T was the last company to try this approach, with near-disastrous results. Its timing was unfortunate because Patrick Buchanan was out on the hustings stirring up voters against callous and greedy corporations when AT&T announced plans to eliminate 40,000 jobs.
At first the stock market responded very favorably. But AT&T stock "has fallen hard in recent weeks as AT&T, once known warmly as Ma Bell, has become vilified as an icon of American corporate greed. The public flailing has been broad based, from Labor Secretary Robert Reich to Newsweek" to the aforementioned Mr. Buchanan, noted The Wall Street Journal.
It didn't help when The New York Times ran a heart-tugging, weeklong series on the wrenching changes corporate downsizing has caused to individuals and communities.
After getting nowhere with conventional PR tactics, AT&T turned the tide with a smartly executed corporate ad blitz to show it was concerned about more than driving its stock. "Wanted .*.*. Good Jobs for Good People," the headline said.
In one stroke AT&T ministered to the self-respect of the unfortunate souls being let go and at the same time started a national search to find them new jobs. "In addition to helping them find another position within AT&T we've set up a nationwide job bank for those who can't stay with us," the ad stated.
"In less than two months, businesses across American have answered our call for help, sending us over 100,000 job leads within their companies. We're adding unlimited job counseling, as well as relocation, back-to-school and training grants."
Then AT&T thanked its customers, suppliers and members of the community "who have supported our efforts" to find jobs for the "good and talented people affected by the changes sweeping through our industry."
This is textbook crisis management stuff along the lines of the Tylenol tampering incident. You almost get the impression that-as with Tylenol-forces outside AT&T's control caused the company layoffs but that, in the tradition of Johnson & Johnson, AT&T is doing the responsible thing.
But such a tactic will only work once. Johnson & Johnson's decisive action saved the day for Tylenol, and AT&T's ads showing concern for its people might have helped the company weather the storm.
But AT&T can't lay off more employees and then run another ad headlined: "Wanted....More Good Jobs for More Good People." And neither can anybody else.