The Irvine Co. may be forced to make unprecedented public relations moves--and publicity-shy Chairman Donald Bren may have to meet with the media--in order to help overcome the image damage that has suddenly placed the county's largest developer on the defensive.
That is the consensus of local consultants and public relations and advertising executives interviewed Wednesday. The remarks reflect concern over the Irvine Co.'s announcement that it would lay off 240 workers--a decision that comes on the heels of a corporate restructuring.
"There is nothing more important to the Irvine Co. than its image," said Martin Brower, the Irvine Co.'s former director of media relations. "The company has to communicate good will in order to continue getting permission to build," said Brower, now a consultant and publisher of Martin Brower's Orange County Report.
An image of concern for the community is crucial to the success of any developer that expects community support, consultants say. That image may have been muddied with Wednesday's announcement that nearly one-fifth of the Irvine Co.'s staff will be cut.
"I recognize that what people think about us is important," said Thomas H. Nielsen, the company's president. "But people also understand that in the corporate world you have to be competitive. . . . We think they'll understand."
In recent years, the Irvine Co. has spent millions to bolster its image. It is an image that has ridden a roller coaster of highs and lows.
The image hit hard times in the late 1970s, when the company proposed massive developments without having sought public support. Then, in a move to calm the storm, Nielsen was named president in 1983--a position that was pegged on building closer ties to the community.
Nielsen has generally succeeded at that mission--but the company now faces its toughest test.
Indeed, it may be time for Bren, the company chairman and chief executive who abhors public speaking, to step forward and discuss the company's goals, said Sheri Correa, a public relations specialist with Jansen Associates, Orange County's largest independent advertising agency.
"He (Bren) really can't afford not to talk to anyone," Correa said.
But Nielsen said Bren will not change his ways.
"I speak with Don almost daily," he said, "and understand his deep interest in remaining a private person." Nielson said he will continue to speak for Bren.
"Adverse news is adverse news any way you put it," said the chairman of one of the county's largest advertising agencies, who asked not to be identified. "Advertising itself will not solve the Irvine Co.'s problem. It must be done with public relations tools."
Brower said the best publicity for the Irvine Co. would be to set up a job placement organization for the laid-off workers.
"A move like that reads good inside and outside," he said.
Although Nielsen said the company will "assist" the workers in finding new jobs through its human resources group, he added: "We do not have a job referral bank."
The Irvine Co. announced that it will dismiss 18% of its work force. Business, Page 1.