Teachers at three eastside Portland-area districts have threatened strikes this spring. Next week employees at Reynolds School District actually may be on strike. An arbitrator’s decision on Monday has stirred up memories of the tough transit negotiations during the last two decades.
Communications for labor relations is a touchy, sometimes nasty business. That’s on a good day. Pulled into strike mode, the communications job can become painful. Regardless of whether you represent labor or management, here are eight basic survival tips:
1. Don’t waste time:
Contract negotiations on the horizon? If an organization has the luxury of time, take full advantage of it to research the talks from previous years, then get to know the issues both sides will put on the table this time around.
Pull together a media strategy, create fact sheets making your arguments, find the personal stories that humanize your case and identify the credible spokespersons you’ll rely on to carry messages. Note: Your spokespersons most likely aren’t occupying an executive office suite, but may be frontline service providers.
2. Understand the role of the media:
Are your executives up to speed on what to expect from the media during tense labor talks or a strike? If not, consider media training for a core group, grounding them on the key messages and preparing them for interviews.
3. Managing the messages, speak through your brand:
Craft your messages to support your labor relations goals. Speak to your audience, not to your membership or executives. Keep it simple but memorable. Speak through your brand. View the public debate about your organization as a way to remind the audience of your brand promise and who you are.
4. Manage communications for the long-term:
Avoid succumbing to the passions of the moment. It may feel good to zing the other side with wit or a damning broadside, but that’s a tactic serving no long-term goal and yielding no benefit. Your labor communications campaign should fit into the organizations broad communications program. Manage your public comments for the long-term, keeping in mind the goal of maintaining or restoring relationships.
5. Speak in a respectful voice:
If item #4 is to be achieved, keep in mind this admonition: Speak in a respectful voice. Avoid making things personal. Remember, both sides have to work together once the labor issues are settled.
6. If hardball is the game, be very careful:
An escalation of tactics — becoming more visible or louder — may be necessary. Perhaps advertising is the next tool to come out of the box. Make sure your visualization is memorable — and not memorable for the wrong reason or bad taste. Again, remember item #4. Don’t make personal comments
7. Don’t take it personally:
Labor negotiations often are an emotional time. Sometimes you feel slapped in the face. Don’t take things personally because they were done or said in the heat of the moment. Put it behind you.
8. Wrap it up with a bow:
The public usually doesn’t care one way or the other who won in the end. People will remember only that they’ve been inconvenienced — that the kids missed school, buses and trains didn’t show or essential services weren’t delivered. So, when the labor dispute or strike is over, create a concise summary of the outcome for use now and the next go-around. If possible, labor and management should make a joint statement.
If these tips are followed, the two sides may be able to stand in the same room together.