EDITORIAL: Companies need only look at the GE strike to realize the importance of employee comms

A national strike against General Electric by 17,500 members of the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) was one of those rare labor actions that highlighted an issue that resonates sharply across industries, companies, and regions.

A national strike against General Electric by 17,500 members of the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) was one of those rare labor actions that highlighted an issue that resonates sharply across industries, companies, and regions.

The conflict stems from the company's requirement that its workers take on more of the healthcare costs through employee contributions. With healthcare costs on the rise nationally, and few employees seeing the bonuses and pay-rise levels of the late 1990s, even the workplaces that are remote from collective bargaining and other labor issues may find themselves itching for a walk-out. In this column, I have already stressed the importance of employee communications in this difficult period. But the goings-on at GE should serve as a serious wake-up call. According to the company's own press release, "75% of employers are increasing employee contributions and cost-sharing provisions because of rising costs." But telling employees that "everybody's doing it" is not a satisfactory explanation. Employees who do not feel that they are working in partnership with their companies will not hesitate to jump when seemingly greener pastures beckon. Sacrifices must appear to be made not only by the "rank-and-file," but by all levels of the organization. During the boom period, we talked extensively about the strategy for retaining staff as employees jumped from exciting job to exciting job. That discussion is disturbingly out of fashion now, just when companies need the loyalty of their key performers most. Crises turn comms staffs upside-down PR is not an exact science, as evidenced by our feature on crisis communications on page 13. Four crisis experts were asked to tackle the possible undoing of an ersatz company facing a multi-stakeholder meltdown. (Any similarities to a real company or CEO are strictly coincidental, by the way.) As one who observed the team in action, I was gratified to see how much discussion went into even seemingly mundane issues. Should the company, where food workers have been stricken by a mysterious ailment, do a full recall of all products? Doubtful, but let's keep our options open. Should the CEO go back home mid-crisis and get some rest? Well, maybe. Who should be the company's spokesperson? It depends. But the core theme, regardless of which communicator was speaking, was that a crisis turns a company's communications machine on its head. Corporate strategy that may typically be developed over weeks of planning is compressed to hours. The CEO and the board may take on different roles as the situation evolves, depending on things like whose credibility is holding up to greater scrutiny. Joele Frank made the point that companies and CEOs will rarely, if ever, face a legitimate crisis in their careers. But much like fire insurance - which you'll likely never need, but will rue not having if calamity strikes - what company can justify foregoing a crisis plan or failing to call in authoritative counsel when faced with potential disaster?

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.