How Does Brand Crisis Management Help You Stay Union-Free?

It’s easy today for a corporation to find itself in a brand crisis, drawing the attention of employees, unions, competitors, customers, and the public. A crisis can develop from numerous sources – management decisions, industry crisis, employee actions, documentaries like Inhospitable targeting certain industries, labor unions, social media, and on the list goes. A crisis can damage a company’s brand or reputation, and the crisis may not even be of the company’s own making. The nature of the crisis determines the consequences, and they can be long-term, like your workforce deciding it needs to unionize. It’s important to proactively develop a crisis management plan that protects the company’s reputation, so a crisis is quickly and successfully addressed.  

When Employees Create the Crisis 

It sounds obvious, but as one research study at the University of New Haven found, “Managers who do not anticipate a crisis are less likely to prepare for one.” It goes on to say that overexposure to crises can “lead some managers to associate crisis events with other organizations and think that such events are less likely to occur at their organizations. The notion that “it can’t happen to us” is shortsighted.” The managers in some companies tell themselves they don’t have to worry about labor unions because they’re doing everything right. They pay a competitive wage, have good safety procedures, offer generous benefits, train leaders to be effective communicators, and develop a positive culture. Management that thinks a crisis that other companies are experiencing isn’t going to happen in their organization is unlikely to have a brand crisis management plan. They react when a crisis does occur, risking a disjointed and ineffective response.  

Employees can decide to hold a very public union organizing campaign, like at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, for a reason you may not have recognized. At Amazon, it’s because employees believe they don’t have a voice. You think you’re doing everything you can to develop a union-proofed organization, but employees may still decide they are unhappy. Amazon knew it was a target of labor unions and had a solid response plan developed that the company’s leaders could quickly implement. Many companies are caught unaware of employee issues – issues that could have possibly been addressed without them going public.  

In 2018, Google employees took everyone by surprise when they protested its involvement in a military program called Project Maven. Google ended up canceling the artificial intelligence project, costing the company a lot of lost revenue. Google revived the project in 2021, but three years were lost. It’s assumed that the company is prepared to respond to employee issues concerning this effort this time. 

A story in the New York Times discussed how some Apple employees, a workforce with a reputation for being so supportive of the organization’s innovative culture, “submitted accounts of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation, and discrimination at work, among other issues, to an employee-activist group that calls itself AppleToo.” The company pays well, has excellent benefits, and rewards creative thinking. Still, the common theme of the complaints was that employees believe there is an organizational culture of secrecy they consider toxic. Employees say they are afraid to criticize the business or report poor managers.   

Discontent in the workplace can easily turn into a brand crisis. There are indications that Apple employees are increasing their pressure. The employees established the AppleToo website and posted the website in two internal Slack channels.   


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What Drives a Crisis? 

Of course, the COVID pandemic was a crisis that forced rapid organizational changes, like establishing a remote workforce, new work schedules, and changes in safety procedures. With access to social media, employee issues were broadcasted to the public. An issue can go viral within hours, turning into a crisis. Your company could be facing labor issues, for example, and employees can go online and discuss those issues under the National Labor Relations Act’s umbrella principle of protected concerted activity. Suddenly, the public is drawn into the attack on your company. 

One of the implications of social media is that even a small negative event can quickly careen out of control. Mike Lake, Managing Director of Communications at IRI Consultants, says, “Today’s unprecedented access to information magnifies the impact of corporate attacks.”  

A crisis is driven internally or externally, so what makes a crisis depends on the situation. Unions, alt-unions, NOGs, political activists, community groups, or other organized groups are often involved. Corporate campaigns may include labor unions partnering with other organizations to turn stakeholders, like customers and community members, against the company. 

The law firm Baker McKenzie addressed corporate campaigns, writing, “The purpose of a corporate campaign is still primarily to increase union membership and expand union power and influence on corporate management. The need for new members has become increasingly urgent as unions have been losing their stronghold in industrialized markets like the US, Canada, and Europe as more historically unionized jobs are moved offshore. This decline has led to a shift in focus. Instead of organizing workers from the bottom up, unions are exerting pressure from the top-down, attacking the company’s reputation and advancing public policy positions through the use of corporate campaigns.” 

Here is a good example. In June 2021, Decolonize Burlington, a Vermont group supporting the Palestinians, issued an international call for people to boycott the Ben & Jerry’s brand. The reason was that the ice cream company manufactures and distributes ice cream in Israel and the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank. This affected the ice cream company’s carefully constructed brand as a socially conscious company.  

One truism is that companies that have prepared for brand crisis management are much more likely to respond rapidly, correctly, and in a way that prevents permanent public damage to the company’s reputation and helps to avoid unionization.  

brand crisis management

Managing the Corporate Crisis 

Brand crisis management begins before the crisis. Another way of saying this is you should be proactive in identifying potential crises before a crisis occurs. In today’s business environment, that means continually assessing the risk of a crisis that would harm your brand’s reputation. Similar to identifying your vulnerabilities to unions, you will identify your vulnerabilities to each identified crisis most likely to harm your company’s reputation.  

What would happen if your employees protested your social policies, saying your company is not inclusive enough? What if your employees turn to social media to talk about what they consider unsafe working conditions? How would you respond if you found signs of union activity? What if the community of operation objects to business practices they believe impact their quality of life? 

Brand and reputation management is important for many reasons beyond the impact on the bottom line. People want to work for companies that are aligned with their values. If your company comes under attack for something like not being diverse enough or for doing business in countries violating human rights or for tough work schedules, the brand damage can be swift. Some of the consequences include making it more challenging to attract, hire, and retain talent and making it more difficult to become an employer of choice or stay union-free. Frequently, an attack on a brand precedes union organizing efforts. The reason is simple: The union knows the vulnerability that gives it the most leverage.   

You need an effective corporate reputation management plan which includes a communication plan for responding internally and externally. Out of the many situations that have arisen over the past years is the realization that responding rapidly, truthfully, and with a path forward can save a company’s reputation and help your company stay union-free. If your company has a value of transparency, being transparent when a crisis hits is crucial. Management will quickly be called hypocritical if you don’t uphold your values. Leaders must lead from values at all times. Employees want to know they are valued and play a critical role in the company’s success. During a crisis, you need them as company advocates. 

Getting ahead of the public discourse is crucial to minimizing the impact of the crisis. Talking to employees directly is as important as the public relations response addressing the negative claims made. You want to get ahead of the bad publicity by explaining the crisis and the company’s response. Otherwise, employees will start posting their perspectives on social media without having all the facts. You want employees who are advocates for your business during a crisis.  

One strategy for identifying potential reputation risks and managing industry-related issues is participating in trade associations. Mike Lake at IRI says, “Trade associations are great places that your organizations can go to collaborate as an industry. It’s also important for organizations to have a good social media monitoring system to stay ahead of any bad publicity that may arise within the industry.” Social media monitoring yields data and data analytics that can give you an early warning of potential employee issues or a looming crisis. Social listening should be included in the crisis management plan and employed on a routine basis because it promotes positive social media usage for your brand.  

crisis management

Brand Crisis Management Planning in a World of Crises 

Almost every company today experiences one or more crises because there is so much ongoing disruption in the business environment and because employees and the public can easily attack a company brand and hurt its reputation in a public manner. Labor unions are always interested in recruiting collaborators to assist with corporate attacks.  

Unionization is not the only risk, of course, but the damage a union organizing campaign can do to the corporate brand is potentially immense. Many companies use outside resources, like IRI Consultants, to help them prepare a crisis management plan or a corporate reputation management plan. This gives you access to the expertise you may not have internally. Whether or not you decide to use external resources, the most essential point is to be proactive in brand crisis management. The next crisis is around the corner. Of that, you can be certain.  

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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