Due to the limited space we had for the GM story last week there was a lot from my conversation with Tony Cervone, VP communications for GM North America, that didn't make it into the piece.
The following are excerpts from our conversation about the role communications played during the two-day strike by the United Auto Workers association.
PRWeek: How did your efforts effect what took place?
Tony Cervone: I think the thing that changed the direction was the negotiations team and the negotiations themselves.
We didn’t get in the way by making communications the centerpiece of the situation. Often times it’s easy to get a bit myopic in your own world and then try and infer it’s the most important thing happening. Clearly the most important thing happening was the negotiations themselves and having the ability to have the groups talk to each other without the noise factor, if you will, for lack of a better term of public rhetoric, back and forth and against each other.
Certainly there’s a role for communications but the role was along the lines of not overreacting and not creating an incident that would have been very polarizing. That’s one aspect of it.
The other is that a negotiating and communications strategy has to start several months if not a full year before negotiations start. So when we got into a strike situation the employees had a pretty good basis for the competitive risks we had as a company and there wasn’t the fervor of us against them. It was more we understand we have to support each other in a strike but we also understand the company has to get more competitive so it was a much more measured strike.
That’s why there weren’t the usual highly emotional attacks on each other and I think that had a lot to do with people just completely understanding the competitive position, which communications played a role, but not the only role.
Not creating any polarizing event is definitely more important than taking sides in a strike situation. That speaks to the point of getting out in front and having employees truly understand your competitive position. And this is clearly something that we have been working on for a long time.
PRWeek: How did those meetings take place?
TC: From an internal communications standpoint we have a number of mechanisms we use on an ongoing basis, most of which are moving more and more toward face-to-face and small group directed dialogues rather than a monologues. There’s a couple of times a year you may do a big employee meeting but most of the time it’s small groups face-to-face. If you have a big organization you can use electronic tools like Web chats, podcasts, and other interactive ways of communicating directly. We use virtually any mechanism you can think of to have a dialogue, which we feel is a lot more important than the one-way direct kind of information flow.
PRWeek: What did you do internally and externally once the tentative agreement was reached?
TC: It was announced at 4 in the morning so it was a little different than any other time I have done this. We did what we had done virtually every night that negotiations went on. When negotiations would conclude we called down to the media that were covering it on an ongoing basis telling them they could go home. Last night we called them to tell them the union was going to have a press conference.
We didn’t have a joint press conference, which is normally done, simply because the union had to spend a lot of time asking their employees to come back to work. That was clearly a priority. And not only did we have an agreement but we had an agreement that was going to recess the strike if you will.
We put out a statement and a press release and were available for media inquiries.
Internally we put out an e-mail message to all employees from the head negotiator announcing that a tentative agreement had been reached and some of the generalities of it.
We have an internal news line, where people go to pick up on what the company news of the day is and we had a story there. We sent notices to the various stakeholders we spoke to during the strike including suppliers, dealers, service and parts and operations people. So we had the full court press on. Our shareholders get this information through various arms of the media.