In Labor Strike Situations, PR Powers Both Sides of Dispute


Strikes, job actions, lockouts: Labor disputes of every stripe have occurred in virtually every industry, from manufacturing facilities to the halls of academia. It's about more than just wages and working conditions. It is a PR battle that requires the skills of the most savvy communicators. Labor wants to sway public opinion in its favor, of course, and a core strategy of any labor action is to generate sympathy within the community at large, while also keeping workers focused on the goals and intentions of the strike. Overall, labor will use PR as a means to put pressure on management. Management also wants to shape public opinion without exacerbating a tense situation, swaying the feelings of strikers who may want union leaders to settle. Successful PR in this environment requires exceptional delicacy, as Jillane Kleinschmidt discovered this summer. Kleinschmidt is manager of internal communication strategy at International Truck and Engine Corporation in Warrenville, Ill., which this summer endured a six-week strike by the Canadian Auto Workers at one of its Canadian plants where wages were in dispute. During that time, Kleinschmidt worked to keep open the lines of communication. "We needed employees to know what was going on, both those who were in that plant and those elsewhere who were concerned," she says. This was important not just to satisfy curiosity, but also to avert possible future job actions by the more influential United Auto Workers. "We knew the UAW was watching every move during that situation." Kleinschmidt established an employee message line that was updated every couple days by the VP of operations. The messages did not comment on the status of negotiations, but they did offer assurances that negotiations were continuing, and they did reiterate the top-level issues of productivity and cost containment. Kleinschmidt also organized a different set of information to help managers field questions and concerns from among their workers. A conference call was used to convey that information, with the VP of operations and the president of the impacted business unit doing the talking. Managers throughout the firm got their questions answered live in the course of that call. In addition to these internal communications efforts, Kleinschmidt's 10-person corporate communications department simultaneously had to ensure that management got a fair hearing among the local population around the plant. Because of cutbacks, the firm had no communications pro on site, so a member of the corporate communications team went out to handle media at the strike location. "We wanted to have someone local who could build a rapport with the reporters there," she says. Otherwise, labor would have been able to paint a very one-sided picture in the local media. To further enrich the community PR effort, Kleinschmidt sought local knowledge from the Canadian arm of Hill and Knowlton. "We needed them to help us understand the Canadian laws, the Canadian mindset," she says. "For example, they have a law that says you can bring in temporary workers in a strike, but the law has only been in place since 1995 and the overall mindset there is that that it is wrong. We had been considering using that strategy, and [H&K] really helped us to understand the implications." Eventually, they got back to the table, but no one got the deal they wanted: That plant is slated to be closed later this year. From a PR point of view, Kleinschmidt considers the update line to have been a great success, though she notes that such tools must be used with care. At times, it seemed the information updates only drove demand for even more news. The Labor Stance Looking at strike-related PR from the labor side of the table, on the other hand, it can sometimes seem as if the very opposite intention is at play. "If there are egregious situations in the workplace itself, you have to highlight those things," says John Jordan, a long-time friend of labor who in 1998 organized PR during a poultry-workers strike over wages and working conditions at a small plant outside of Ashville, N.C. "In this place, for instance, there were a lot of very strict rules: People can't go to the bathroom when they want, things like that. When you have specific things that everybody could relate to, you highlight those to all your various groups." At the time of that strike, illegal immigrants were a hot item in the news, and Jordan needed to show the local community that the Central American natives working at the plant were just honest, hard-working people. "We got 12 religious leaders to travel down to this small town," says Jordan, president of Principor Communications. The church folk helped Jordan to turn up the pressure by swaying public opinion against management. "They wanted to meet with the plant manager but he would not meet with them. That was good for us from the media perspective," he says. "The management overreacted and called in the cops, and some of the cops had dogs. That helped us in the press." On the internal side, labor's agenda is very much the same as that of management. "We needed to communicate realistic expectations," says Jordan. To do this, he organized mass meetings as well as small group discussions headed up by the union's lead organizer, a woman from El Salvador. If the general rule is that management wants to stay positive and labor is ready to go negative, there also are exceptions. Kleinschmidt, for instance, offered the media ample data showing that the striking workers already were among the most highly paid in the region for the type of work they were doing. She did not outright call them greedy, but the implication was there. Those who have been in strikes say this kind of fact-based critique is both fair and necessary. "Hiding is a big mistake," says Andrew Kraus, VP of Epoch 5 Public Relations, who last year represented a hospital on Long Island during a 111-day strike by nearly 500 union nurses. "It is not about counter-attacks. It is about making sure that the facts are out there." By the same token, labor PR can sometimes go too far to the negative side. Jordan for a while applied the tactic of putting management in the media spotlight. But rather than moving the strike toward an advantageous settlement, he says, "all it does is piss them off and make them dig in." It's Not Us vs. Them "It is all about the customer," says Ronald Hanser, president of Hanser & Associates Public Relations. If that is true, then management's PR strategies during a strike should be obvious. 1) Position the team as a team: State repeatedly that labor and management both want to serve the customers properly and profitably. 2) Your employees are great. Keep saying how much you appreciate them. 3) Declare that the real problem here is the union: "Those people." The outsiders. The troublemakers. (Contacts: Jillane Kleinschmidt, 630/753-2489, Jillane.Kleinschmidt@Nav-International.com; John Jordan, 202/595- 9008, jjordan@principor.com; Ronald Hanser, 800/340-6434, rhanser@hanser.com, Andrew R. Kraus, 631/427-1713, akraus@epoch5.com)

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