My chat with Cristin Culver, VP of Communications at Notarize
From getting laid off 3x to helping conduct a layoff to having a thriving comms career
When I got laid off earlier this year, Cristin, the VP of Communications at Notarize, DMed me on Twitter and said, “You rock, keep your head up. I have been laid off 3x; every time was a catalyst for something better. The scary early days are the worst with all the sense of impending doom, but it will pass!”. I appreciated her honesty and upbeat message, which helped me keep things in perspective. She was involved with Notarize’s recent layoffs as an executive after having been laid off multiple times at prior jobs. I finally got to talk to her at length about all things layoffs and communications. The former is topical right now, and the latter is something I’m going deep on because I believe it’s an underrated function. Cristin’s background makes her the perfect person to talk to about those topics! A common thread throughout the conversation is the world of real estate. Cristin has seen it all through a decade spent across Trulia, OpenHouse, and Opendoor.
Sar: I want to discuss communications broadly and in the context of the evolution of tech companies in the real estate world with you. You have gone through multiple layoffs in your career. I know people that got laid off this year. What advice do you share regarding navigating the situation as an impacted employee?
Cristin: I never meant to be a poster girl for layoffs, but now I consider them badges of honor. I have been laid off 3x in my career - twice, the company I worked for was acquired by our biggest competitor, and positions were eliminated, including mine. The most recent time I got laid off was in April 2020, right after the Sequoia Black Swan memo dropped and the massive wave of COVID layoffs in the tech industry began. Going through layoffs as an impacted employee takes you through a similar path of the stages of grief - shock, anger, more anger, fear, and finally, acceptance. The advice I always give people who got laid off is that they have to do two types of work to get through this phase - the first is mental - and it's the hardest. They have to be mindful about not letting fear cloud their thinking, you have to do everything you can not to let imposter syndrome creep in, and you must remember that you are not low-value and you're great at what you do. If people can keep themselves out of that mental ditch of despair and stay in a positive mental space, it's easier to navigate the job hunt. Easier said than done, but it's key to going into this short career blip with a clear head. Doing that mental work also connects to the second part, engaging with the people who can help you get a new role. I leaned on my network of former colleagues who knew what I was capable of to give me the first boost to get back into the game. I also owe much of my career to the humble cold email. I have sent cold emails to former colleagues, founders, and comms leaders at companies I wanted to work at, and in a few instances, they created a role for me. It's not a surefire approach, but a 'shoot your shot' method has worked for me.
Sar: Most mid to late-stage companies that do layoffs will hopefully do them only once in any foreseeable period. So it's easy to imagine making mistakes no matter how much you try to be thoughtful about how you do it. What are the most common mistakes and challenges founders and management teams make in doing layoffs? I sense there's a plan and a story for distinct audiences: the external world, the retained employees, the laid-off employees, and the leadership team, including the board and investors. Things get complicated when there are some press leaks. How should companies consider the significant levers to get this as right as possible for all stakeholders?
Cristin: You're right in assuming all the audiences - every one of those groups is a stakeholder in layoffs, and every one of them will need a different message. Some founders and exec teams get tripped up because they assume they can have a 'master message' for all audiences. Layoff comms should derive from the same master message but must diverge by the audience. The outside world needs to know certain details. In contrast, the remaining employees need an entirely different communications approach; they need to be recalibrated to the new reality and be over-communicated about the current and future vision of the company. That is where the cohesion of external and internal comms is most important.
The other obvious mistake that companies keep making is they execute the logistics of the layoff inhumanely, locking people out of their systems and sending them an email to their personal email address, or the mass Zoom firings we've all read about. The logistics of it are complicated and take herculean levels of the organization. Still, it can and should be done - and if you look at the press coverage on layoffs recently, the negative stories usually center on how a company did layoffs, not the fact that they did them. Senior leadership teams must decide on what level of transparency they're all aligned on at the front side of planning. They have to be honest with themselves about how the company typically authentically communicates. Suppose you're not a transparent company with a CEO who has or likes visibility. In that case, you'll likely need a different approach and strategy than many companies you see doing this in the press.
Another huge mistake I hear about, manifesting in press coverage, is that some exec teams think they can hide or minimize the layoff news for reputation and the perception of strength for the business. We're in the era where we're seeing layoffs leak on social media within minutes of employees getting notified. Failing to plan for a world where the layoff stories are broadcasted to the world is delusional at this point. It's a much smarter play to own it, have a statement, and provide critical details when needed, rather than sending reporters to chase down details from Linkedin, Blind, Twitter, and Glassdoor.
Layoffs are not a positive moment for any company. They provide an opportunity to give visibility into the company's future vision (i.e., we are putting the company on a path to profitability and focusing on enterprise customers) and set impacted employees up for success with visibility and support. At Notarize, we brought more press coverage for our layoffs than we would have otherwise by the CEO tweeting proactively and the remaining employee base sharing the news in their networks with the list of impacted employees. Our commitment to the impacted employees was that we would do whatever it took to get them to their next career chapter. It "hurts" reputation, but it's the right thing to do. We owned our narrative and had a clear, public statement, allowing us to participate in the narrative about us. It was a better alternative than reporters piecing together what they saw elsewhere.
Sar: You brought up cohesion between internal and external comms as essential to getting the execution right. It's common for impacted employers and the remaining employee base to find new details about the layoff story in the press. That happens when the management team decides to share information internally selectively. Typically, the calculus is to avoid spooking people or not looking bad or irresponsible. That backfires when a reporter gets wind of this because of what you mentioned regarding social media. Thoughts on that?
Cristin: The ideal scenario is that no new details come out in the press because there is clear transparency to impacted employees. There should be nearly-full transparency to the remaining employees to address the layoffs, the new operating plan, organizational chart, vision, and priorities for the next quarter within 12 hours of the layoff. There should be an all-hands for execs to take the hard questions on why this happened and where everyone goes from here. But we've all read enough tech news to know it rarely happens like that. There's no way to get around the logistical nightmare of laying off dozens or hundreds of people when the word gets out via colleagues. It's a regrettable scenario but hard to avoid because many companies are trying to balance doing layoffs empathetically with the reality that word travels fast. In the last layoff I managed, we solved this by starting all planning with what we'd tell remaining employees, and all other communications cascaded from there. We told impacted employees all we could, but we laid it all out for the remaining employees and were completely transparent, which helps combat everything else they're reading and hearing. Post-layoffs are the most challenging environment for internal and external comms, so the only way to combat external narratives is to over-communicate internally.
Sar: Let's talk about communications as a function broadly. You have mentioned it's the least understood function in startups. I tend to agree and think it's because it's a hard function to conceptualize for most people not doing it. It's easy to appreciate sales, marketing, or design intellectually. The work output of comms is likely too intangible to most. The conventional wisdom of founders being storytellers contributes to this dynamic. It is easy to imagine founders having a hard time letting go of functions they are good at to functional heads as a company grows. That issue is deeper when it comes to communication. Not just for founders but also in broader org see and appreciate the value of the function. What do you think?
Cristin: You really picked up on my angst about how misunderstood comms is in the tech ecosystem. Founders are the ultimate storytellers and should look at comms as their broker or steward of the story. Or even as a PM of the company's story. Founders may have nailed the origin story and the future vision, but they should look to comms to weave that into a current and future narrative that can be used in various forms with different audiences. You say different things in a sales meeting than you'd say to an individual consumer. Comms can help keep those narratives separate but aligned. Also, while founders were building and becoming experts in a category, it's unlikely they were studying the media landscape and building media relationships. They don't often understand how media relations work, how to create internal timelines and execution plans that map when a funding round is happening, a product is launching, an acquisition is underway, an exec transition is playing out, or a crisis is unfolding. That is where comms experience is invaluable and necessary. Comms is also a great gatekeeper of your time. As you become more interesting and relevant as a company, reporters, podcasters, etc., start asking for time and interviews, and founders should look to their Comms lead to help them understand the ROI of spending their time in various places.
Some loud voices in tech recently amplified this concept of needing comms. Brian Chesky at Airbnb said that the company had more than half a million articles and a larger share of voice than every other travel company combined, and he attributed it to PR. Bill Gurley said, "most companies way under-invest in PR…while spending to the moon on variable marketing." No founder could ever scale comms/PR to a place that matched their aspirations without the help of a professional. They can and should stay in the spokesperson role, but the magic happens when they put a true comms professional into the driver's seat to lead, build, and scale a program.
Sar: You have worked in comms at multiple successful real estate companies with different products and business models at varying stages. Can you talk about the differences in how you approached communications in the context of market evolution over the past decade?
Cristin: I've been doing PropTech comms for 13 years, so I've worked through nearly the entire evolution of the category. I was at Trulia in 2008, pre-IPO, pre-Zillow acquisition when the innovation in the space was the unlocking and digitizing of listings. The listings and ads for realtors had traditionally been in the window at a real estate office or in the newspaper, but now they were online. You didn't need to be working with an agent with MLS access to see what homes were on the market, and it all felt magical and voyeuristic. It was the era where Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com were the leading players. Redfin was in-market and making a run for it, but they still felt small and nascent at the time. That early era of the portals being the most significant change in real estate was fun and novel. But, looking back now, it's crazy to see how little had changed in real estate. Those ten years of the early 2000s were the first significant shift in nearly 100 years, and then 100 more years of innovation happened in the next ten years.
Zillow and Trulia changed the 'what' and 'who' of real estate - they showed consumers what homes were on the market, put some visibility on rates and lenders, extracted data to show trends, and showed them who could help them through the process. But no one ever touched the 'how' of the process. Anyone who has ever bought or sold a property knows that the pain points are concentrated in the 'how' part of the process. Comms in the portals phase were all about telling stories with data, attracting eyeballs and winning the traffic war, and becoming the biggest, most beloved brand. The next decade became about building an experience that removed the friction and benefited the consumer, so comms was about educating the consumer on the new options available to them and getting them to a base level of understanding and trust so they'd transact instead of defaulting to the incumbent process.
I spent 2017-2020 at Opendoor, where I worked on most of our comms needs and eventually focused on launching new markets and growing those markets via local/regional comms. We were smart about it, making local comms a core pillar early in the company's life. Real estate is inherently local - always has been, always will be - and we treated comms in the same way, and we used it to create a category, overcome skepticism, and enhance paid marketing efforts. I talked to hundreds of customers, and nearly every story of how they found out about Opendoor was some version of "I got something in the mail, or I heard it on the radio, and I thought it was a scam." To many consumers, Opendoor was essentially a digital version of the cardboard signs on the side of the road that said, "I will buy your home for cash." A lot of education needed to happen locally to explain the model and the benefits to consumers and then share as many stories of locals who had tried it as possible to show real people experiencing real benefits from a new process. That was a crucial part of kickstarting the word-of-mouth flywheel and getting a bonafide 'trust layer' into the market to combat skepticism and authentically educate folks.
Sar: There's an ongoing debate about where the communications function should sit in the organization. Should Comms roll into Marketing? Should Comms report to the CEO? As a comms veteran, it is easy to tell which side of the debate you fall on. What are the two schools of thought, and how do they differ?
Cristin: That is an ongoing debate, and there's no straight answer; ultimately, it depends on organizational design, the size and resources of the company, and business objectives. But let me make a case for why I believe comms should straight-line report to the CEO and dotted-line sit adjacent to a Marketing organization. It starts with what we've already talked about, which is that the Founder/CEO is ultimately responsible for the story and narrative of the company, so proximity here is critical. Like a game of telephone, layers can dilute the message and the strength of the relationship between message and messenger and slow the message's speed. A strong relationship here will turbocharge comms efforts. I also believe keeping Communications in the CEO's office gives it the level of neutrality that best serves the entire organization. The company/brand and the CEO are the primary focus, and the rest of the C-level executives get equal treatment and resources from comms. I've seen comms sit under a CMO and struggle to get oxygen under the weight of Marketing's priorities, while other organizations get little-to-no attention. I've also seen an integrated Marketing org where comms is a huge value add. Both are possible and true simultaneously, but I am team 'Office of the CEO' through and through. The pandemic also leveled up the perception and necessity of communications. It quickly became one of the most critical organizations in many companies and has stayed that way in a post-COVID world. Comms have also evolved to become what I believe is the 'conscience of the company.' Having both internal and external comms report to the CEO demands honesty and transparency inside and outside the organization.
The school of thought to have Comms sit with Marketing thinks of Communications as a brand/reputation function and a sales driver. Most CMOs I know would prefer to have PR as an asset on their team with more bandwidth devoted to marketing priorities. When marketing is fully aligned with sales and PR is viewed as a customer acquisition channel, a case can be made that it should live in marketing. Size also matters. Small startups usually aren't resourced to have Marketing and Comms functions. As they grow, communication needs grow way beyond marketing and often cross over into the priorities of every C-level exec, including HR, Sales, Legal, and beyond. That is the obvious moment where comms needs to graduate out of marketing. Ultimately, PR and Marketing have different goals and are measured in very different ways - Marketing sells, and PR builds and maintains relationships. It will be up to the CEO to look at their organization and call on what's best aligned for their business.
Sar: You told me there is no way to playbook the function. Can you explain your thinking? Many workplace activism stories have come out over the past two years. How has the role of internal comms changed?
Cristin: It's not unique to comms, but there is no one "right way" to do comms, and even if you've nailed it at some point, having a playbook you wrote more than 18 months ago is as useful as an iPod at this point. You might have a few nuggets in there worth saving, but the ecosystem has evolved so rapidly that what was true 12, 18, and 24 months ago isn't true anymore. The media landscape has changed; PR people outnumber reporters like 4-to-1 (imagine those reporter inboxes!), newsrooms are shrinking or shuttering, and overall attention and impact has moved onto different platforms like TikTok, Discord, or into newsletters/ Substack. The dispersion of eyeballs is everywhere, and knowing where your audience is everything. It's always been everything, but in 2022, you have to chase and track them a lot harder. A significant part of being a communications leader is future casting and knowing what tactics work and when to retire those that don't anymore. Unlearning what you once held as truth or a 'sure thing' is huge in this function. Comms is always seeking a medium for the message. Writing a playbook in pencil instead of a sharpie is the only way to operate in the current landscape.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed how we communicate, and internal communications have seemed to have an entire renaissance in the last few years. COVID essentially changed how companies needed to speak to their entire employee base and keep them engaged, especially ones that went from entirely in-person to remote overnight. Companies with multiple offices or distributed workforces had a headstart and better systems; others played catch up as we all collectively navigated the early days of WFH, COVID policies, return-to-office, etc. Internal communications have always played a significant role in the employee experience, and I look at it as the air traffic controller of the company. They're there to manage the systems of information and ensure everyone has the specific information they need to get where they need to go and be successful, but they're also there to help mitigate threats when they arise. I am seeing a shift in internal communications from being on the defense to being as much about offense in the wake of more and more workplace activism stories. They have to have a plan to keep the majority of employees informed but calm when it feels like the proverbial building is on fire. I presume there have always been shades of the activism we've witnessed over the last few years. Still, with a greater spotlight on it in the press, I know more scenario planning is happening inside companies to navigate through it when it eventually happens to them.
Here’s a chat with another Opendoor alum from 2 years ago :
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