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Industrial action is an unpleasant experience for everyone. Internal communication has a major role to play in ensuring that the process of delivering messages is as agreeable as possible.

3rd March 2017

“Progressive organisations understand the need to build a strong and open relationship in the good times, so in difficult times it’s easier to have adult conversations.”

RICH BAKER

In October 2016, Southern Rail took out a two-page newspaper advert asking commuters to tell RMT how they felt about imminent strikes. Far from having the intended effect of rallying support, the plea to “strike back” rankled with many.

The rail operator urged commuters to tweet their concerns to RMT. But users of the service felt it was neither their responsibility to resolve the dispute nor appropriate to use social media to pass judgment on those protesting about changes to their roles. The campaign, described as “inflammatory” and  “a clumsy use of wrong tone”, highlighted why a sensitive, neutral approach is critical during periods of industrial action. It’s certainly not the time for a marketing stunt.

A measured, stringent plan, co-ordinated with a multi-skilled team, including staff and union representatives if possible, is the best way to gather and disseminate facts – though even with the tightest rule book, communicating during a strike is no easy ride.

Geraldine Maynes, who has worked in internal comms for several transport organisations, says the strategy must be pinned down well in advance of any discussions about industrial action.

“You should know who will be saying what and when – from your spokespeople to the CEO,” she says. “And when industrial action is under way, stick to that strategy. Don’t let the excitement of the moment interfere or allow you to make rushed decisions. “It’s the role of the internal comms team to be a calm, objective voice of reason during what can be a very high-pressured time.”

Working in the fire service for 12 years, Debbie Whittingham led internal comms through many such times. The first was, no pun intended, a baptism of fire.

“I was a naïve 25-year-old information officer,” she recalls. “We had no comms presence in the truest form – just a small PR and events team – and it was my first week. It was petrifying. I learned a lot from it, though – mainly the importance of asking people how they wanted us to communicate during periods of action. Some people thought letters home encroached on their personal space. Others found it quite antagonising to be spoken to during strikes from anyone who might be seen as management.”

 

Building trusted relationships

As communications manager, Debbie was prepared for the next strike. “We knew it was coming, so we worked with crews in advance. I asked them what they wanted me to do. Our intranet became a central source of messages so that crews had access to all the information, whether that was updates from our chief fi re offi cer (CFO) or from the government. We held face-to-face briefings with the CFO and our execs carried out extra station visits. Crews had the full picture. We didn’t expect thanks for it, but the aim was to be as transparent as possible.”

Internal communication and employee engagement expert Rich Baker is also well versed in the comms protocol, having worked through strikes, or actions short of a strike, in four companies in the brewing and rail industries. He stresses the importance of building and maintaining trust within an organisation.

“The period between a union deciding to ballot and the ballot taking place is an opportunity for the organisation to influence the outcome, should they wish to,” he says.“But the critical mistake organisations make is waiting until that point to engage with employees. If you wait until there is a crisis or action is imminent, you’ll never have the outcome you want. Progressive organisations understand the need to build a strong and open relationship in the good times, so in difficult times it’s easier to have adult conversations.”

Gaining trust often involves changing people’s perceptions of leaders. IC experts need to work with managers to remove hierarchies and temper their behaviour, especially during periods when it may be instinctive for them to show who’s in charge. You can expect to end up with a few battered egos on the floor. Leaders need advice on relating to employees as one human to another, rather than manager to employee.

Senior leaders can take small actions to make themselves more approachable, like giving out their mobile number. “Make it easy for employees to talk to the people they want to,” says Rich. “It’s not about setting up channels that work for you. You need to use channels that work for your organisation.I set up phone blogging for one CEO. He’d chat to people throughout the business and record short podcasts. We’d send an SMS to everyone’s phone with a number to call to listen to it and leave comments.”

 

Finding the right tone of voice

Put yourselves in the shoes of the people you’re talking to. What would you want to hear and how would you want to hear it? Talk in their language, advises Debbie. “Don’t use management speak. Talk to people in the same tone that they’ll use to explain the strike action to their friends in the pub. The last CFO I worked with has been a firefighter within that service so he understood what people were going through and what it meant to them. Having had the same experience, his empathy made his messages come across as genuine.”

Letting managers go off script is a potential red rag to a bull, says Geraldine. “Having senior leaders address the frontline is great, as it can help them appear more human and real. But you need to be really careful. Allowing them to speak freely during periods of tension is not always wise. If you use emotive language or let frustrations get the better of you, you are potentially giving your employees reason to feel further animosity towards your company.”

“It’s a difficult balance to achieve,” says Kate Burke, a corporate affairs director within  the NHS, “especially if leadership feels the action is unjustified or may be detrimental. But I would caution against openly condemning planned action.Management should set out its position firmly, but respectfully. It’s internal communication’s role to provide a trusted source of clear, unbiased and consistent information to staff.”

It’s up to the communication team to co-ordinate messages from different sources and make sure that misinformation or issues are quickly identified and managed. At Kate’s NHS Trust, for instance, a forum allows staff to raise concerns anonymously. “Things like that help maintain morale – not necessarily through the content itself, but in its format, regularity, reach, clarity and consistency,” she says.

 

Reuniting colleagues

Strikes are divisive and, particularly, the clash between those workers who are striking and those who aren’t must be policed. IC teams need to encourage employees to continue working together once the action is over so that services and care are not compromised.

“When you’re going into a house fire or attending a road traffic accident together, you build up strong bonds,” says Debbie. “You know that your colleagues have principles and values. The day after a strike, you need to remember that.

“Once strike action was over, we always ensured there were opportunities for people to share their concerns about any behaviours that needed addressing. This is one time where the family feel of the fire service really comes into its own. And we  internally shared positive messages from the public about the work the crew does. It’s a charm offensive, but it can help to quickly build morale back up.”

It can be an emotional journey for the comms team, too. Once the dust settles, it helps to take stock and find reassurance from others in the same boat. Sharing experiences with other organisations is valuable, says Debbie: “We had a network of fire service comms professionals, called FirePro, where different brigades would present strike plans and lessons learned, which was especially effective for brigades that had smaller resources.

“It’s important that comms people talk about the issues with different people in their industry. Sometimes it felt a bit like counselling. A strike can take over your world. I became passionate about getting it right.”

Ultimately, industrial action means something has fundamentally broken down, but remember that all staff are critical to the success of the organisation.

“It is vital to rebuild trust, and re-engage and re-motivate staff,” concludes Kate. “The post-action phase should be in your mind when planning internal communication. That’s why maintaining the most objective position possible before, during and after strike action is important.”

“Progressive organisations understand the need to build a strong and open relationship in the good times, so in difficult times it’s easier to have adult conversations.”

RICH BAKER

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