Communicators May Need to Clean Up Narratives Once Pandemic Subsides

Several weeks ago, Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls was fired. He'd organized a modest (15 workers) protest against the company's alleged failure to provide adequate safety measures for staff working during the pandemic.

Amazon contends it is protecting workers and says it fired Smalls for other reasons. Smalls says that’s nonsense. A leaked memo from an Amazon attorney that discusses a plan to smear Smalls doesn't help the company's case.  In addition, coronavirus reportedly has spread through many parts of the Amazon network. Recently, senators questioned Amazon chief Jeff Bezos about the firing.

[Update, April 12: In a blog post today, Amazon offered a list of steps it has taken and is taking to ensure the safety of workers in its warehouses and the cleanliness of Whole Foods Markets.

In the post, the company also notes charitable initiatives it has undertaken to fight the virus. These include committing $23 million to support Europe as it battles the pandemic, Bezos's $100 million donation to Feeding America and supporting virtual classrooms with no-cost resources from AWS and Amazon Future Engineer.]

Who's on Top?

At the time of Smalls's ouster, PRNEWS commented that the situation was heavily slanted toward employers. In normal times, PR advises brands to consider reputation implications before it makes what could be seen as harsh moves against workers. At the moment, though, with millions of Americans jobless, it seems Amazon and other companies can afford to discard standard PR guidance.

That seems to be the case still.

Speaking Truth to Power

Yet it’s becoming harder to ignore that more and more essential workers are communicating their narratives. On top of that, they are doing so without authorization. Some are taking to social media to speak out.

This group of part-time communicators includes doctors, nurses and other health care workers. In addition to working to counter the tsunami of virus patients, they are doing so despite what they say are shortages of protective equipment.

Hospitals, similar to Amazon, are fighting back. Some have threatened to terminate staff who post complaints on social or speak to the press without authorization. At least one doctor was fired for doing this.

Hospitals, like Amazon, claim they are protecting workers against contracting the virus.

Similarly, listening to some speakers during the daily White House briefings, you'd have to conclude there's little substance to worker complaints. There are no shortages during these briefings.

Almost daily, President Trump lauds the progress his administration is making in supplying ventilators, masks, beds and other equipment to hospitals in need. The president also notes "nobody" has administered more coronavirus tests "than we have." While that's true, it's also the case that the US has tested not quite 1 percent of the population. It's similar to communicators who refuse to measure and still claim their work is effective.

Like the Virus, It's Spreading

Distressed workers in other essential services also are voicing their displeasure. In addition, some are walking out or holding short strikes.

Brands and organizations in those industries are reacting similarly to Amazon. Delta Airlines, for example, says its staff is a top priority. At the same time it is ordering disgruntled crew members to stop posting to social media or sharing positive COVID-19 tests with co-workers.

Poultry Problems

Some of the newest worker tension is bubbling up in the poultry and meat-processing industries. A media report described poultry worker Annie Grant allegedly being forced to come to work at a Tyson Foods plant in Camilla, GA. Grant, 55, reportedly told a supervisor she felt feverish. She was urged to report to work, though. Grant died of the virus this week.

At the plant where Grant worked, Tyson offered workers a $500 bonus if they reported the next three months without missing a day.

Pence Weighs In

There are other components at work.

During the White House's relatively sunny briefing April 7, VP Mike Pence urged food-service workers like Grant to remain on the job. “You are giving a great service to the people of the United States of America," Pence said, according to a transcript. "We need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job,” he added.

A major concern of unions and workers groups is that many essential industries’ have staff that are comprised predominantly of minorities. It is possibly why African Americans are getting  coronavirus at higher rates than Caucasian Americans.

Similar to statements from other industry leaders, VP Pence said the administration is working “tirelessly” to ensure workers are protected.

'Cap-tain Croz-ier, Cap-tain Croz-ier' 

In a story somewhat similar to the examples above, the US Navy fired Capt. Brett Crozier last week for complaining in a March 31 letter that sailors under his command on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt were poorly protected from coronavirus.

Like Amazon, hospitals, the Trump administration, Tyson Foods and others, the Navy said it is protecting sailors.  It looks like Crozier's crew disagrees. Throwing distancing to the wind, thousands of sailors cheered Captain Crozier's name as he left the Roosevelt for the last time.

As of this writing, some 400 sailors from the carrier, as well as Captain Crozier, have tested positive for the virus.

Days later, after classic examples of horrendous crisis-response maneuvers, Thomas Modly, the acting Navy Secretary who fired Crozier, resigned.

PR Takeaway

It's not easy leading an organization or brand at this moment. Leaders must be willing to discard their tried-and-true play books, says Matt Spaulding, president, Spaulding Communications.  "This means, for example, they need to have the courage to revise, suspend or amend their current employee policies as situations dictate," he says. Adaptation is key.  "If leaders and, by extension, their organizations cannot adapt, they will likely suffer consequences," Spaulding adds.

Once the virus subsides, leaders at brands, hospitals and in government may need to provide evidence that the narratives they provided during March and April were truthful. Communicators in these sectors likely will be busy.

This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.