ESPN Layoffs: A Lesson in Owning the Narrative

Leave it to a media company to offer a mini-case study in media relations.

ESPN cut around 100 jobs on Wednesday, about half of which affected on-air talent, in a move to redefine and restructure itself for the cord-cutting digital age.

The layoffs affected many prominent personalities—including former NFL player Trent Dilfer, former NBA player Len Elmore, SportsCenter anchor Jay Crawford and longtime baseball reporter Jayson Stark—and, in fact, about 10% of its entire talent roster was cut this week.

But ESPN was forthcoming and transparent in the way it went about communicating the layoffs, offering a lesson in owning the narrative. For instance, the letter from ESPN president John Skipper explaining the layoffs to all employees was immediately posted on its site as it concurrently issued a statement to the press.

“Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value, and as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent—anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play—necessary to meet those demands,” Skipper said in the internal statement.

ESPN also issued a detailed explanation of its content evolution strategy to provide further context for the cuts.

The layoffs had long been expected, with the need to cut costs a recurring thread throughout quarterly earnings calls for years. Since 2013, the network’s subscriber base steadily dwindled from more than 99 million to around 88 million today. In response, ESPN laid off about 300 employees back in October 2015, though an overwhelming majority of those jobs were behind-the-scenes. And during its most recent quarterly conference call, Disney’s cable television division announced an 11% year-over-year drop in operating income—and said ESPN was the sole reason for the decrease.

So, while cuts were expected, they went deeper than many industry-watchers anticipated. But because of its transparency about the layoffs, many of its talking points in its prepared statements became the foundation of coverage from media outlets.


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