FedEx rally was a PR object lesson

The handling of the FedEx dispute could yet turn out to be an object lesson in industrial public relations. It's too early to say, of course, since the strike that the pilots' union has threatened has not been averted yet - although a moratorium on actions that might affect FedEx service has already been agreed.

The handling of the FedEx dispute could yet turn out to be an object lesson in industrial public relations. It's too early to say, of course, since the strike that the pilots' union has threatened has not been averted yet - although a moratorium on actions that might affect FedEx service has already been agreed.

But already, the influence of great public relations and superbly executed in-house communication is being felt.

The facts, as presented by the media relations team, are that 6,000 staffers voluntarily held a rally in support of the company. That they voluntarily sought out an advertising agency to donate banners and helped orchestrate the program. That they came up with the slogan 'Absolutely, Positively, Whatever it Takes.'

That cameras from every local TV station were televising live, and the event was taped and shown globally over FXTV, the company's closed circuit TV network, while a limited frequency FM radio station also broadcast the rally. That the FedEx web site publicized the same message about the details of the event.

And, finally, that the rally was staged between the company's corporate HQ and the main hub at Memphis International Airport, directly in the line of sight of the very pilots who were threatening the strike.

Naturally, the media relations department is doing its best to downplay the role it has played in all this, seeking to meld into the background, while denying any part in the rally other than to use it as any public relations department would. And the whole supportive uprising is being presented as a spontaneous outpouring of company loyalty.

Yet, call it journalistic cynicism. Call it respect. Call it an instinctive appreciation for the realities of PR, this is one of those occasions when the unseen hand of PR is most admirably at work, doing what it does best, while all the while, denying its role.

That is the dichotomy of public relations. It doesn't get the recognition it deserves, because it has to work behind the scenes. But you can be sure that the PR department at FedEx - along with its agency Ketchum, which has a crisis PR team bunkered in Memphis - is working very hard behind the lines, firstly to continue to garner support; and secondly, to insure that if the strike does go ahead, it will have a strategy in place to minimize the residual impact.

It is entirely conceivable that the public's abiding emotion - as people struggle to get Christmas parcels shipped to loved ones far away - could yet turn out to be sympathy. Sympathy for a company where it's not just the management who want to avoid the strike, but a high proportion of employees too. And as Bill Clinton has shown, not only is that a hard emotion to argue with, it can also be quite a winning ticket.

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