Analysis: Strike threat includes PR damage

Coverage of the British Airways strike in July will have sent a shiver up the spine of PROs across the corporate sector. Adam Hill on how unplanned-for industrial action puts your company's name on the line.

Royal Mail, which as PRWeek goes to press is facing a strike from members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) over pay and changes to work practices, should have been watching British Airways's experience closely. Last week, looking to head off industrial action, Royal Mail took its case to the conciliation service ACAS 'in an effort to avoid damaging disruption to postal services', according to chief executive Adam Crozier.

Externally, Royal Mail's emphasis has been placed on a 14.5 per cent pay deal and the need for stability for the good of the letter-receiving public. Internally, chairman Allan Leighton has written to postal workers outlining his thoughts on the need for change. The CWU, whose 160,000 members make up the bulk of Leighton's mailing list, recently spoofed his matey style with a newsletter called The Truth. This incident has got rather messy, as Royal Mail sought legal advice regarding a line referring to Leighton's pay, although the matter is understood to have now been concluded without the need for legal action.

All this could so easily have been avoided if only Royal Mail had looked at the BA debacle - in which strike action over swipe cards lead to walkouts and unprecedented negative press coverage. With 17,000 highly visible customers in various states of distress on every news bulletin, this was arguably a masterclass in negative publicity.

BA head of corporate comms Ian Burns has already admitted that 'we could have had a better dialogue' with unions (PRWeek 8 August).

It also looks like Royal Mail still has problems communicating externally, with its press office refusing to speak to PRWeek about their media tactics surrounding industrial action.

A spokeswoman said: 'They want to keep their heads down at the moment and get through it. They are communicating with staff and customers, but they don't want to talk about how they're managing the situation.'

Chris Genasi, chief executive of reputation management specialist Eloqui, thinks this is an odd response. 'It is in their interest to begin briefing journalists about their side of the dispute, about having an eye to the future and the need for change,' he says. 'When the story erupts, journalists and others might then be less sympathetic towards the union.'

Reputation management veteran Martin Langford, MD of Kissman Langford, is equally surprised. 'I would be building as many allies in as many sectors as I could: customers, media, regulator and the softer end of the unions, to put pressure on the union for a settlement as soon as possible. If you get a huge number of allies around you prior to an industrial crisis, that tends to bode positively.'

BA chief executive Rod Eddington was also slow to get involved, Genasi adds. 'But after that (the comms team) handled it as well as they could.'

Langford is less generous in his assessment: 'Any company with a strong union must be prepared for strikes. With BA, I was staggered to see the lack of preparedness from an operational and communications point of view. Why was so little done proactively? And why come out with a solution (the £80 vouchers) that angers people even more? You need to be completely transparent and communicate as fast, if not faster, than the norm. Your audiences - internal, unions, non-unionised staff and external, such as the media - need to be completely over-communicated to.'

'There aren't times to block the media,' Langford continues: 'There are times to explain why when you can't speak to them - but that's not the same as saying "no comment" or giving off-the-record briefings.'

Reticence on industrial issues is not confined to Royal Mail. Workers from the Amicus union last week walked out of talks with Bombardier Aerospace in another dispute, but the Belfast engineering group's press office will reveal nothing about its PR strategy, apart from admitting it is briefing journalists in Northern Ireland.

As PRWeek is going to press, even Aston Martin, which has never experienced a walkout by workers before, appears set for a series of stoppages over new flexible working patterns. While the union concerned - the Transport and General Workers Union - is focusing its media relations message on what it claims will be increased pressure caused by the new shifts, Ford Motor Group, Aston Martin's owner, is stressing the need to boost production.

But the BA example shows that selling the story to staff on the ground is as vital as hammering home external messages. Genasi says: 'Problems often happen because the commitment to internal communications doesn't permeate down to operational levels. (The BA crisis) shows the importance of these strategies not just being something that senior management or HR people spout on about, but that they are relevant on the shopfloor too. That is where flare-ups happen.'

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