The city of Chicago announced mass layoffs Friday to cope with a devastating budget shortfall in its school system, and the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel would prefer that people hear as little about it as possible.
An email obtained by The Chicago Tribune provides an intriguing insight into the world of public relations, with Chicago’s government doing its best to manage the impact of very bad news.
According to the Tribune, an email was sent from a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) spokeswoman to district CEO Forrest Claypool and other top staff. The text reads as follows:
Attached you’ll find the first draft of materials we’ll use to communicate publicly about the layoffs Friday. They include:
—— statement for Thursday night when news leaks about the Fri morning meetings
—— statement for release Friday morning with broad overview of layoffs
—— description of materials to be released Friday EOD [End of Day]
As the Tribune explains, the message is brief and to the point, but also highly revealing, exposing the basics of how Chicago’s embattled government tries to downplay bad news. The strategy is to allow news of the layoffs to leak late Thursday (while managing it with an immediate statement), provide only vague details Friday morning, and then finally dump specific details about the layoffs at the very end of Friday, when reporters eager to head home for the weekend won’t have much time to assess them and won’t be able to reach city officials.
Of course, attempting to bury bad news on a Friday is nothing new, either in the private sector or in government. But the leaked CPS email is a rare glimpse at deliberate implementation of the practice.
The layoffs announced Friday are only expected to affect staff at CPS’s central office, while teachers will be unaffected. If the layoff is smaller than some previous ones (which could eliminate thousands of teachers at a time), it is no less worrying, because it suggests it could simply be the first of an incredibly painful wave of layoffs still to come. CPS has a budget deficit this year of some $480 million, largely driven by surging pension costs, and its deficit next year is expected to balloon to a staggering $798 million. CPS has pushed for the state to bail it out with a hefty contribution, but it’s not clear whether that will happen.
Instead, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed a state takeover of CPS combined with a possible bankruptcy, which would allow the district to void some of its union obligations and radically cut expenses. The Democrats who control the state legislature, though, say the proposal is a total non-starter.
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