People who work in employee communications often have an uphill battle convincing corporate leaders of the value of open, transparent communication. There's a big fear of communicating bad news or acknowledging problems in the business because it might be seen as a sign of weakness, or play into the hands of union activists, or tip off the competition, or risk legal action, or cause trouble with securities regulators, or, or, or. The list goes on, as do the travails of communicators as we fight the good fight to push against these forces.
The best companies understand that not communicating, or communicating in a guarded, bureaucratic way, just erodes management's credibility and widens the gap between disengaged employees and their leaders.
But even the best companies can get caught in situations where for some reason, they just can't put it together and communicate when they really need to. A recent case in point, IBM's communication breakdown in the wake of the arrest of senior VP Bob Moffat on insider trading charges. Technology blogger Robert X. Cringley recently pointed out in a blog post that, almost a week after the arrest, "IBM has made no comment on the case to the press or even to its own employees." Here's a further excerpt from Cringley's post:
Why no comment? I’ve been wondering that aloud for the last day or two, asking my friends and almost anyone I meet why IBM would be so foolish not to at least issue a press release on the arrest? After all, the company supposedly cooperated with the SEC investigation. They should have known the arrest was coming. Why weren’t they ready with at least some statement reaffirming corporate values or possibly distancing themselves from Moffat?
Doesn’t IBM management owe that to its 398,000 employees?
They removed Moffat’s bio from the IBM web site, but that’s all.
Lack of comment suggests Big Blue doesn’t know what to say. Perhaps the company is paralyzed. Maybe there is disagreement in the executive ranks about how to handle the problem. Maybe Moffat, himself, was the guy who would have helped craft any response but now he’s unavailable. Beats me.
But it doesn’t smell good.
Cringley's observations are a stark reminder of the embarrassing consequences of not communicating with employees and other audiences about something that's in the headlines. I wonder how the internal communicators at IBM are doing right now. My heart goes out to them. If Cringley's reporting is accurate, it must be a nightmare.