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31 Oct. 2018 | Comments (0)

In this “Executive Series,” Pat Stortz, head of internal communications at AT&T, shares experiences from her 16+ years developing and executing PR and employee communications strategies at AT&T.

It’s Monday evening and everyone else has left for the day. But that’s okay. I’m enjoying the quiet while I click away on my computer to finish one last assignment before I fly to Washington, D.C. in the morning. But then, someone is standing in my doorway. It’s Tom, who works down the hall. 

“Do you have a minute, Pat?” Not really, I think.   

“Sure,” I say.

“I need you to talk to someone,” he says.  

Seriously? Now I’m aggravated. Regardless, seconds later I’m following him to his office, frustrated, but curious. Tom picks up the phone receiver lying on his desk, and hands it to me. 

“Ms. Stortz?”


“This is the Carrier Foundation suicide hotline. Tom called us a few minutes ago.  We don’t think he should be left alone right now. Can you bring him here tonight?”

“What? Really?”

“Yes, if you could bring him right away, please.”

I barely knew Tom. It was “hello” in the hallway and that’s about it. But we drove to Princeton, N.J., that Monday night.  And I didn’t make the flight on Tuesday. 

Corporate professionals are working harder than ever. The technology allows it and companies are demanding it. The water cooler in the office is quickly disappearing and with it is dialogue, replaced by emails. In many companies, the office is disappearing, as well.   

AT&T is no exception. People are working long, intense days, regularly bombarded with deadlines, conference calls, product launches, and plans. And that’s just when their companies or clients are not also dealing with earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, employee strikes, lawsuits, hackers or some other disaster or crisis.

But in this crazed and crushing environment, what do you do when personal crisis shows up? Because believe me, stuff is happening all around you, if it’s not happening to you or someone that you love. 

What then?

If a co-worker is in crisis, the choices are pretty simple:  you can ignore it;  you can offer a perfunctory comment; or you can just be there, in whatever way the situation demands. That’s pretty much it.

Years ago, my colleague, Russ, got snagged on a Driving While Impaired (DWI) charge and lost his license for six months. There are some additional facts to this story: 

  • Russ’s wife didn’t drive
  • He was the sole income provider for his family
  • He lived in my town.  

You know where this is going.

Russ and I rode to work together for six months. It cost me an extra half hour in the morning (he got someone else to drive him home at night), but it probably saved his job.  And I like to think that we both gained something on our daily ride to work. I know I did.

Then there was Niall Hickey, one of the best media relations managers that AT&T ever hired. Niall headed our PR team in Europe for years. Smart, well-liked and aggressive, he was always driving the region’s media relations program to a new level, spinning executive interviews, customer sales and our sponsorship programs into positive stories carried by the Financial Times, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and myriad other in-country and daily newspapers, broadcast outlets and trade publications.

Niall hosted interviews and press conferences in Geneva, London, Paris, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa. He was the catalyst behind AT&T’s relationship with Telecoms Sans Frontieres, a global organization dedicated to helping countries and regions ravaged by disaster restore communications to help recovery efforts—and to help loved ones reconnect. 

At one point, Niall left AT&T to work for Alcatel’s PR office in Paris. Local legend has it that he was the only non-Frenchman ever to be promoted to head the company’s media relations department. We recruited him back to AT&T in 1999. Several years later, Google started courting him for a global position based in London.

Niall was a superstar. Then Niall was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). He was 41 years old.  

First, the disease affected Niall’s walking. He found he could only go for short distances before fatigue set in. Still, by managing his energy level, he was able to do the job at AT&T for the next four years. So, he continued traveling to Paris, Dubai, South Africa—wherever he was needed to accompany an executive, host a press conference, or conduct media interviews.   

But then came the day when Niall woke up and found he couldn’t walk anymore. At that point, Phil Coathup, his boss, helped him outfit his home office so that Niall could still do the job, but without the travel. He worked this way for another four years until his condition deteriorated further, and chemo and other treatments forced him to take periods of sick leave.

The day finally came when he couldn’t work for AT&T anymore. The point is, his boss (Phil) found a way to make it work for as long as he could so that Niall could support his family and retain the dignity, affirmation and confidence that comes with being able to say “I work for AT&T,” or any other company.

I think we’ve all read at least one sad story about the worker at X company or Y agency who lost his or her job while trying to cope with a spouse, child, or parent who was seriously ill or in crisis. Maybe you’ve lived through the fear, anxiety and humiliation that comes with having the consequence of joblessness imposed on a life already burdened with sickness, grief, or crisis.

So, what’s the message here? Most days it’s totally about the work. And it should be—deadlines and bottom lines require it. But sometimes it’s not. Somewhere in a company—here at AT&T and everywhere else—someone is hurting right now. That person may be down the hall, across the country. Or on the other side of an ocean. He may be coping with a serious illness. She may be grieving the loss of a father, sister, or maybe even a child. He and his wife may be dealing with a daughter who is bulimic, or perhaps a son or a niece who is battling drug addiction. 

Whatever it may be, when you come across a colleague in pain or crisis—or if you are that someone— take a breath, step back, and then reach out, either for someone or to someone. If you can listen, lend a hand, or just work some magic to make the situation work for your employee and for the company, please just do it. 

Because at that point, it’s actually not just about the work anymore—it’s about so much more. And that’s okay too. Have you witnessed the spirit of giving in the halls of your company? Have you been that spirit in action? Tell us. As we head into the holiday season, I can’t think of a better way to feel inspired.

  • About the Author:Pat Stortz

    Pat Stortz

    As the head of employee communications, Pat Stortz leads a core team of 40 professionals responsible for engaging 280,000-plus employees worldwide with the company’s corporate and business unit …

    Full Bio | More from Pat Stortz


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