Communication Without Communicating: Lessons From Access Bank’s Crisis

Ishola Ayodele

Communication Without Communicating: Lessons From Access Bank’s Crisis

By Ishola Ayodele

The Crisis

Recently one of Nigeria’s biggest banks, Access bank decided to lay off some employees as a form of the new reality as a result of the economic challenge brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their CEO, Herbert Wigwe in a video chat leaked on Twitter announced the measure which will affect a large proportion of their non-essential staff who formed 75% of their entire workforce. He also added that the remaining 25% staff will also take a salary cut.

Public Reaction

The backlash was overwhelming. People castigated, lambasted and turned the organization into an object of ridicule.

The public’s anger stemmed from that fact that some weeks back, Access Bank donated a whooping 1Billion Naira to the FG for the fight on Covid-19 in Nigeria.

Here are my observations

1. The Access Bank recent lay off saga met the characteristics of a crisis.

a. The Bank is not comfortable with media interpretation of the leaked speech of the their CEO.

b. The speech generated negative reaction from viewer.

c. A branch manager feigned ignorance when a customer made an enquiry about the information.

All these are clear indication of a badly managed issue that resulted in a crisis.

Thus, Access Bank is in a reputational crisis now. And in days to come you will state reading human angle stories like this underline “My Fiancee Broke Into Tears, Sacked Access Bank Cashier Billed To Wed In June Says” from opera news.

2. The truth is that, no matter whatever might have gone underground, people make their judgement based on their interpretation of the information available to them.

This outrage is driven by emotion, perception is formed based on feeling not necessarily rational thinking.

These staff have already suffered grave economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic because they belong to the poverty class. For these set of people to face retrenchment is double jeopardy.

Hence, the negative reaction to this announcement is normal even science supports it.

Psychologist have discovered that humans are wired to feel what other humans are feeling through a chemical substance called Neroneurons. This is why we cry when we see tragic scenes or become angry when we see people (especially children) being maltreated or Assaulted (Eg Senator Abbo & the Nursing woman).

3. From PR stand point, it’s either the PR team of Access Bank did a poor job in preparing this communication or the leadership of the bank ignored their input.

From communication perspective the communication from the Access Bank CEO in this video is awful and grossly insensitive.

a. There is no humanness from the CEO. He was stoic.

b. There was no empathy for the staff that were going to be laid off. To him (according to the speech) they were just figures & statistics. But to the viewers these are fathers, mothers, sisters brothers, uncles, aunties who are usually bread winners in the family.

c. He disrespected these set of staff by calling them non-essential staff. You are not only taking away their source of income, now you taking away their dignity by devaluing their contributions.

Every staff of an organization is a source of value it depends on how well the organization is able to harness their potentials.

In one of our discussions in the School of Impactful Communication, over 200 PR experts & Scholars unanimously agreed that employees are crucial to the delivery of ‘Corporate brand promise’.

As a physically challenged, I personally find the security men/women more essential than the customer care guys because they assist me up the staircases, they convince the chief security to open the mantraps door from the inside. And I have also seen them help elderly people and even some illiterate & semi-literate customers with how to fill in the teller or help them at the ATM.

The reason we sit comfortably in a bank is because the toilet is not smelling or the floor is not filthy. If all these are not in place and there is no tea girl or office assistants, even the so call essential staff or professionals will not be able to work effectively and efficiently.

And whether we like it or not the courtesy of the security personnel, the smile of the cleaner when she asks you to move your legs politely as she cleans the floor and the time saved by the tea girl in bring tea to the ‘professionals’ in middle of their work though may look non-essential, they go a long way to shape our perception of the bank or organization.

When I wanted to register my MTN SIM. I met a very large crowd in their office. There were no seats available for most people and the place was chaotic. So, I wanted to turn back and go home but the security man pleaded with me to just enter first. It was this security man that went to find me a seat. He went to speak to the people doing the registration to give me special consideration and assisted me to the available staff.

So, the reason MTN still make money from my recharge today was not due to the service of the so call ‘professionals’ but the quality of service of this amazing security man (Note: it was not his duty). Sometimes the little things we overlook are more valuable to people.

4. For the record, the CEO didn’t say the bank will lay off 75% of their staff. What he said was that Covid-19 has shown the bank that the of work is digital coupled with the fact that some of their branches won’t be open till December so they may not be needing so many outsourced staff as they currently have. They will need to discuss how to rationalize these outsourced staff that made up 75% of their workforce.

Theory of symbolic Interactionism states that, “we don’t react to what people say or do but the interpretation of what is said or done”.
This is why I often tell my clients that it is not what you say but what the audience hear that shapes their reactions

Useful Lessons from the Access Bank Lay off Crisis.

1. It is the duty of Access Bank to communicate in a way that they wanted to be heard.

The burden of understanding is not on the receiver but on the sender of a message. As I said in my book “Teaching Without Teaching”, “if the arrow does not hit the bull’s eye we don’t blame the bull’s eye we blame the archer”

2. The Newton 3rd law of motion states that, “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Humans are not tap recorders, so Communicators must know that, “to every communication there is a reaction”.

Thus, as leaders & communicators we must anticipate reactions to our communication and prepared adequate for them.

The Access Bank management should have taken into consideration the possible reaction that their decision might generate and prepare adequate on how to prevent this negative reaction or mitigate its effect.

3. “Whatever You Do Now, Please don’t think of an Elephant”.

Did you actually think of an elephant?

This is a classical example of George Lockoff’s Framing theory. George Lockoff postulated that, “we think in metaphors”.
For instance, If a guy meets a pretty lady while coming out from a prison gate and in the course of wooing her he says “never mind my past” the lady immediately thinks he was a convicted criminal who just regained his freedom (even if he was a prison warder who just resigned after starting his own business or a pastor that went to preach for inmates).

The key lesson here is, Choose your words carefully they can make or mal your communication. Whatever you don’t want people to hear don’t suggest it to them.

4.. Whenever you are taking a decision that affects human lives behave like a human.

The Access Bank CEO’s demeanor didn’t reflect compassion, appreciation and recognition. Even if we want to let people go we need to let them know they are important to us and the decision to lay them off was the most difficult thing to do for us.

As Communicators when designing this type of communication we must put ourselves in the shoes of those that will be affected and talk to them the way we would like to be talked to.

Prof. Stephen Covey researched the The Golden rule which says, “Do to others what you want done to you” and discovered that it appears in the scriptures of more than twenty religions in the world.

5. To effectively engage stakeholders especially Internal Stakeholders, we must effectively master the use of ‘Fair Process’.

Fair process originated from the notion of distributive justice in Law which talks about transparency in justice.

Distributive justice entails justice for both parties (the victim and the accused). This is why both victim & accused are represented in court. In some country the government made a lawyer available to an accused who cannot afford a lawyer. So, justice must not only be served it must be seen to be served. So, even a person is convicted it will not be because he was not represented in court but because he was guilty of the crime.

Whenever you engage people in way that shows you value their contributions and inputs, they will be ready to accept the outcome of that exercise. This is because though the decision affected them not because it was taken behind them but because it was the necessary thing to do to keep the company afloat.

6. Lay offs doesn’t have to be a win-lose situation. Strategic organizations have found ways to make it a win-win situation for their laid off employees. The bank should have sought expert advice from Stakeholder engagement experts on how to carry out this exercise without causing this much brouhaha.


As Communicators we must know that communication is not what is done after talking but after strategic thinking.

We must always remember that, “Strategic Communication is not all about grammar, it is planned, laser targeted and most importantly it is implanted.”

Ishola Ayodele is a specialist in Message Engineering for leaders, brands and organisations to yield desired communication results.

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