It sounded a straightforward project when the INEOS director of comms first got in touch saying he wanted some PR support for a change management programme.
But when he added that the project was to change the terms and conditions of its workforce at the huge Grangemouth petrochemicals plant, I knew it was going to be anything but straightforward.
Grangemouth is one of the UK’s biggest industrial complexes and its industrial relations have always been notoriously difficult. When the company last tried to introduce pension change, a two-day strike had cost it more than £100m and it had been forced to back down.
But that failure meant the problem was now all the more urgent. INEOS had lost over £500m at the site in the past four years and something had to be done. The plant also needed a huge amount of new investment and, if things couldn’t be changed, Grangemouth would have to close.
Scale of the problems
Media Zoo was given a simple brief. First, communicate the scale of the problems to all the stakeholders (both internal and external). Then, explain the merits of a survival plan that asked something of everyone. Finally, make sure that everyone understood whatever decision the company took and that it got a good share of voice.
The first part of the brief didn’t require a hugely complex series of messaging sessions to identify the issues. The narrative was simple and compelling.
The North Sea gasses that Grangemouth uses as its raw materials are running out fast. Without £300m of new investment to import US shale gas, the business is finished.
But INEOS was not willing to invest £300m in a plant losing £10m million a month. The pension scheme – one of the most generous in the country – was bankrupting the company.
For every pound it paid in salary, a further 65p had to be paid into the pension scheme. And even with that level of subsidy, the pension fund was sinking fast with a shortfall of almost £200m.
It was a fairly straightforward matter to launch phase one of the campaign - "Grangemouth at the crossroads". For almost a month the Scottish media ran articles and programmes explaining the problems facing the business.
The decision was takento be even more explicit about a possible closure date. The narrative became darker as the company confirmed that "Grangemouth could close by 2017" and the £10m a month loss figure soon became as well known as the pension deficit.
As the problems became better understood, phase two of the campaign – the "survival plan" - was rolled out. While the existing pension plan could not remain, a still generous pension scheme would be made available and there would be no cuts in the high levels of basic pay. In return, INEOS would guarantee the £300m investment needed to ensure the long-term survival of the plant.
The issue, though, was not the dire economic circumstances surrounding the plant or even the survival plan.
The Unite trade union at the site was pursuing an investigation into a union official that the company had launched earlier in the year, following claims that he had been working on Falkirk Labour Party business when he should have been representing the INEOS workforce – claims that, according to national newspaper reports, turned out to be true.
Unite denounced the investigation and declared it was going to take strike action, forcing the company to start the long and expensive process of temporarily shutting down the plant.
Poised on the verge of bankruptcy
It seemed extraordinary that, with the site poised on the verge of bankruptcy, the union was going to shut the plant over an official who was still working and on full pay, but that was clearly the plan.
The number of media calls rose from dozens a day to hundreds a day and the press office switched to a 24 /7 working pattern. Such was the media interest that we even sent a team to Grangemouth to provide PR support on the ground.
In the midst of all this, Unite then unleashed what are commonly know as "leverage" teams to turn the tide in its favour.
The union even turned its ire on Media Zoo and Rachel Pendered, the company’s MD. However, she countered, telling PRWeek that the union "should engage with the message, not shoot the messenger" and asserting "bully-boy tactics and personal attacks are unsavoury, unnecessary and undignified."
While strongly condemning the union’s tactics (the Prime Minister later called them "unacceptable"), our focus remained on highlighting the financial issues and – as the union refused to communicate the economic difficulties facing the site to its members - the company decided to ask the workforce itself to directly vote on the survival plan.
External and internal comms
A veritable blitz of external and internal comms was deployed to ensure that no one was in any doubt that the choice was the survival plan or closure. Despite this, the union urged its members not to return their ballot papers,
The results of the vote were in many ways quite positive. Half of the staff voted for the plan, which was better than most had expected. But it wasn’t enough for the shareholders to sanction a £300m investment and with a heavy heart the workforce were assembled and told that the plant would close.
Then, at the eleventh hour, Unite performed a U-turn and told the company it would agree to everything without further negotiation.
It offered to call off its leverage team and accept a three-year no strike deal. It also agreed the financial changes needed to ensure the long -erm financial viability of the plant.
The shareholders were called back to London and spent the day discussing the Unite offer. Finally, on Friday, 25 October, an anxious workforce was told the plant would re-open. As the chairman of the company said, common sense had finally prevailed.
The comms challenge now is to restore morale and show everyone that Grangemouth has a bright future. With the £300m investment and plentiful shale gas from the US, it has the potential to become one of the best petrochemical complexes in Europe and continue to provide thousands of high skilled and well paid jobs for the next 25 years