Pressure Tactics 2: Communications Lessons from Unions and Governments

This is the second in a three-part series reviewing how organizations can use public relations to affect change.

Communications can be warfare and one of the most powerful tactics is labour action. PR professionals are battling on either side of a picket line, shaping targeted messages that use the public voice to knock their opponent off balance. Here are lessons to learn from these niche communicators across both sides of the bargaining table.

Be transparent and respond with the facts.

In 2006, the New Brunswick Government faced a work-to-rule campaign by its teacher’s federation. The union claimed teachers received poor compensation compared to other Atlantic provinces, forcing them to leave the province in search of change.

new brunswickChristina Windsor, Director of Communication for the Department of Education, fought back by publishing the factual salaries of what teachers earned under the current agreement in comparison to other regions. This undercut the union’s argument and the government triumphed.

Takeaway: Come to the table armed with facts and data that can make your arguments for you.

Get creative and inspire deeper discussions.

Strikes and lockouts are usually the last-ditch effort—often leading to more detriment than progress—by a group to force change when it believes all other avenues of influence, discussion, and public relations have failed.

Ontario’s teachers unions announced this spring that they would not complete final report cards until their demands had been met, thereby pushing this duty on to principals and school boards. This moved the conversation off granular negotiation points and onto something more tangible to gain public participation.

Here’s how it played out in Ontario’s editorial pages:

Pro-Union

James Gordon, a columnist from the Ottawa Citizen, argued that the valuable work teachers do gives them social license of this type of labour action:

“So to those parents flipping out because they think little Sally or Johnny’s entire academic career will be thrown off-course because he or she didn’t get a few comments on a Grade 4 report card: Get a grip.”

Ottawa Citizen, June 17, 2015

Anti-Union

The Toronto Star’s Ontario politics columnist Martin Regg Cohn leveled that teachers are playing dirty pool by using the report cards as bargaining chips:

“But as the end of term loomed, the union smelled blood and opted to inflict more pain — supposedly for students’ gain. By targeting report cards, elementary teachers have failed the test of common sense.”

Toronto Star, June 13, 2015

Shifting the conversation to the value of teachers’ service spawned a deeper conversation than a point-by-point analysis of working conditions and salaries*. While facts are important to any argument, getting caught up in the details can drown out the importance of the larger message. Connect with the public on an emotional level, as the teachers did in this case, to compound your campaign’s effectiveness.

Have you ever been asked for your input then felt you weren’t listened to? Next week for the third installment of Pressure Tactics, we look at how consultation processes are used and abused.

*Editorial Note: Contract negotiations are ongoing and all four of the province’s unions are in a legal strike position at the same time for the first time in history.



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