Jane Genova
Jane Genova

Transition, goes the cliché, is the new normal. That applies for individuals and businesses. During that process they can become uniquely vulnerable. The apt analogy is what crabs go through. Nature dictates they have to shed their shells. Until they grow new ones, they are prime targets for attack.  

But there is good news. Individuals and businesses can shift from that zone of extreme danger to a position of strength. That is by creating temporary identities. Or just-in-time branding. Yes, the solution is based on smart interim communications. 

Why that tactic is effective is because it can satisfy the primitive need for human beings to feel safe amid change. The driver is emotional – fear of the unknown. The communications strategy is to fill in the gaps with what is believable. Constituencies feel less threatened.

History is full of examples of perception-shaping during transitions which were on the money, literally, and those which were not.  

Chrysler successfully managed its transition during the early 1980s. It was poised between bankruptcy and becoming a first mover in the mini-van market. Lee Iacocca leveraged the “feisty underdog” interim branding. The stakeholders that mattered bought in.

In contrast, Staples, which has been in transition for years, never paused and said: Here is what we are right now. Had it been savvy in communications it could have conducted a contest requesting input about that holding position. Currently, it remains lost.  What a reversal of fortune for the corporation, which had invented a new category – retailing office supplies for small business.

For individuals, the predictable dangerous transition has become unemployment and career change. On the average, documents the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a job lasts 4.2 years, down from 4.6 years in 2014. This month in Bloomberg, head of executive search firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas – John Challenger - warns “an increase in large-scale job cut announcements could be on the horizon.”

Also ongoing is the downsizing of whole industries such as journalism and law. Those employees, especially if they are over-50, have to consider finding new careers. The Ageism Effect is real and pervasive. 

That ordeal of joblessness is brutal for them. So central is a professional identity to human beings that Insead’s Hermina Ibarra researched what happens to the self when employment changes. But it is also brutal for a lot of others. Those include traumatized family members, neighbors afraid of joining the ranks of layoffs, communities anticipating foreclosures, and law enforcement expecting theft and domestic violence.

Calm can fill the land when professionals put together a temporary identity or elevator speech that positions and packages their present as productive and promising. The mistake is to identify themselves in reference to what they used to do or that they are in outplacement. Instantly, they can become victims of intrusive questioning, unsolicited advice, and criticism. 

To prevent much of that, from the get-go when terminated, they lay the groundwork for a strong cover story. That could be: Managing publicity in a political campaign, starting up a solo law practice, or researching a book on classic cars in Hollywood’s Golden Age. None might be generating revenue. But that is irrelevant. All that counts is that the message is out there that the professional has work. Incidentally, those hiring for jobs are aware how the work ethic and skills atrophy when people are not doing work. Also, those initiatives could result in jobs or a new career path.

Companies which leave constituencies, be they customers/clients or employees, on-hold during transition can also find themselves targeted. Typical is the entity post-merger and acquisition.

In just the past six months, $1.53 trillion in deals had been announced. If all go through, 2018 could be a record for M&A. That can mean record dysfunction in business. 

One major reason, found the Deloitte Center for Banking Solutions, was inadequate interim communications about who the new company was. Among the results was customer flight. Of those, 36 percent indicated they did so because of emotion. At the top of the list was fear of the unknown.

Glassdoor also chronicles the problems for companies undergoing M&A. What stands out in the employee assessments is the perception that no one knows what is going on. Frequently, there had been no candid communications about where the organization is. Instead there had been plenty of the platitudes about the premier branding and increased opportunities, which will be the future of the joint entity. Meanwhile, talent exits. 

Ironically, it might be the vulnerability individuals and businesses feel when “molting” that makes them ignore what perception demands. A public relations fundamental is that everything sends a message. It is up to clients to configure that message. Otherwise others will. When clients in transition fail to do that, they should not be surprised they are under siege.

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Jane Genova (http://over-50.typepad.com) provides individual coaching, organizational audits, and thought-leadership ghostwriting about ageism – janegenova374@gmail.com.