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Losing Goodwill: A Communication Breakdown

January 26, 2016     Lessons in PR   MAVERICK

Jenny Cade

Last week Goodwill Ontario closed the doors of 16 stores, 10 donation centres and two offices in southern Ontario. The decision came without warning for customers, communities, and most importantly, its 450 employees.

News outlets were flooded with images of donations piled high and employees milling about in parking lots. Those who showed up to work on Sunday to locked doors were literally left out in the cold.

The closure hit local Goodwill workers hard.

According to Canadian Airport Workers Union Representative Moe Rutherford:

“Our members have gone through a roller-coaster of emotions, from shock to disbelief, confusion and now anger. The communication of uncertainty does not sit well. Our members live from paycheque to paycheque and without fair warning were shut out.”

Heartbreaking.

The official statement from CEO Keiko Nakamura, citing “a cash flow crisis,” was a callous way to communicate the bad news. The sudden, unexplained closure spoke louder than any words could have that day. By abandoning it employees, Goodwill leadership showed that it simply did not care. In the following days, Ms. Nakamura issued a number of statements asking for patience while Goodwill provided some clarity on the situation – patience she certainly had not earned. Questions of any severance for employees, or if they would even be paid for time they had already worked, went unanswered until Friday.

In the meantime, airwaves and online chatter were filled with experts speculating on Goodwill’s failure and emotional pleas from affected employees, some of whom might not make rent. Leadership had absolutely no control of the conversation, even if they had an idea what they wanted to say. The only good news came from local charities such as Second Harvest chipping in to help Goodwill employees, some of whom struggle to make ends meet.

Backlash was swift. Reporting on Nakamura’s claim that the non-profit was losing up to a million dollars a year was nearly always contrasted with a mention of her salary – more than $200,000 a year. A Postmedia story titled “The cowards behind Goodwill” calls out the 11 board members who made the decision and “wipe their hands clean of the entire affair.” It lists their names, positions, and their affiliations – an exercise in public shaming that reaches beyond their board positions.

In a moment of reflection, Ms. Nakamura stated:

“This crisis may present an opportunity for a transformation that allows Goodwill to successfully fulfil its mission in reinvented and empowering ways.”

Companies and organizations often experience tough times. People understand and forgive that. What they can’t understand or forgive is a complete disregard for the community, employees, or human decency. Actions speak louder than words, and in this case, both were woefully inadequate.

The saddest thing is that the Goodwill model provides an ecosystem where disadvantaged and disabled citizens can make a living. The already small pool of opportunities for that group of people in Ontario has now been shrunk.

Goodwill has, ironically, destroyed any goodwill it had in the province of Ontario. If it decides to retool and relaunch, it will have to be with completely fresh leadership and plenty of perseverance. And it will be a very long haul before it regains any kind of public trust.

We Are MAVERICK, a Toronto based Public Relations firm where results that resonate originate.

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