Avoiding Reputation Damage with a Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment

Labor unions launch corporate campaigns for two primary reasons: 1)To organize more workers, or 2) To pressure management into agreeing to union demands during bargaining. Either way, unions try to publicly shame employers (or an entire industry) to force change the union wants. . The focus of the same could concern your organization’s human resources policies, compensation schedule, benefits, social and environmental related operations, safety practices, lack of diversity, perceived bias in promotions, board of directors hiring decisions, and so on.   

Once upon a time, labor unions were only concerned with compensation, benefits, and working conditions per the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), but the list of areas of focus has expanded given new developments like independent worker unions or internal unions that bypass the traditional labor unions, public concerns about such matters as global warming and social justice, and the use of social media for union-focused networking and organizing. A corporate campaign is usually very public, very ugly, very disruptive, very expensive, and very damaging to the business brand, making the Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment a strategic tool for business sustainability by protecting your company’s reputation.    

What is a Corporate Campaign?  

Robert Moll, IRI Managing Director, describes a corporate campaign in the following way:

A corporate campaign is a union-led, multi-pronged attack against an employer. Unions use this strategy to compel employers to concede to union demands for card checks, election agreements, or neutrality during organizing campaigns or to bargaining demands during negotiations. Through public relations tactics, unions engage with the employers’ stakeholders to apply pressure on boards and management or risk their organization’s reputation, customer base, and/or financial performance.  

While the late Richard Trumka was Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, he said, “Corporate campaigns swarm the target employer from every angle, great and small, with an eye toward inflicting upon the employer the death of a thousand cuts rather than a single blow.” A statement made three decades ago still holds true. Instead of attempting to gain the honest support of the workers, the labor union tries to force the employer into making concessions that aren’t guaranteed by law. A good example is getting the employer to agree to a card check which means a simple majority (50 percent plus 1) of “yes” votes on union authorization cards would lead to union recognition, bypassing an election.    

Card check is a favorite goal of labor unions attempting to unionize a non-union company because it accelerates the union organizing campaign by sidestepping the National Labor Relations Board process, including a secret ballot election. Card check makes workers more susceptible to intimidation and bullying to coerce employees into signing union authorization cards. Additionally, employees often don’t fully understand the legal significance of the union materials (a card, petition, or online form) that organizers are asking them to sign, often believing the document is simply a means of showing interest in getting more information. Jennifer Abruzzo, NLRB General Counsel, is trying to make card check the law, which signals to unions they should increase their focus on leveraging corporate campaigns.   

corporate campaign vulnerability assessment

Corporate campaigns can get vicious. Some of the tactics include:  

  • Litigation  
  • Asking a regulatory agency like OSHA, EPA, or Department of Labor to investigate and pursue employer violations of federal or state law  
  • Political lobbying   
  • Issuing negative press releases  
  • Negative publicity showed or published on media like TV, podcasts, and the internet in which the labor union can make false claims.  
  • Undermining relationships with customers and clients  
  • Protests and picketing outside businesses that may include community members to add a sense of righteousness and legitimacy  
  • Targeting shareholders  
  • Organizing boycotts of services and products  
  • Creating websites to specifically shame the employer  
  • Filing a stream of Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULPs)   

In a recent blog post, The Future of Corporate Campaigns, the first point is that labor activism is about the impact and not telling the truth. The campaigns are designed to get as much public attention as possible.   

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Why Do We Need to Assess Corporate Campaign Vulnerability?  

Two major characteristics mark corporate campaign attacks today. One is that the corporate campaign often publicly attacks the brand and all that implies and not just one facet of the company. The second is that the labor union will often choose issues for the campaign that appeals to the public, like claiming the company manufacturers goods with child labor in foreign countries instead of hiring domestic workers. Another example would be claiming that a company extracts natural resources that ruin community water supplies because they don’t care about the health of their employees of family members or works employees to the point of burnout and without fair compensation or concern for employee safety.   

For example, the corporate campaign would not focus only on convincing employees to unionize to negotiate higher compensation or more benefits. It would focus on employees not being paid a “living wage,” which hurts families and diverse communities, even if the wage is competitive in the industry. A wage increase becomes a social justice issue that appeals to the public.  

If your company is already unionized, the corporate campaign could focus on “greedy management” that takes care of itself but doesn’t care about its employees or suppliers. In a real-world corporate campaign, a company was described as operating like a criminal syndicate by operating with deception and corruption, violating human rights, and conducting environmental abuses, all while management enriched itself. The company was also accused of using child labor and selling unhealthy products to children. The union argued that the only way to bring change to the company is a strong union, of course.   

The cost of a corporate campaign is measured in dollars and the harm done to the company reputation. There are legal fees, public relations costs for defending the organization and its management and/or board and getting the truth out, lost employee productivity due to distractions of the corporate campaign, increased difficulty recruiting and retaining employees, potential lost revenue, and so on.  

What Factors Contribute to Corporate Campaign Vulnerability?  

It seems like there is an unlimited number of factors that can contribute to corporate campaign vulnerability today. It’s not enough to consider only compensation, benefits, and traditional working conditions topics, which is what the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) addresses as labor union issues. Voluntary issues like social responsibility are also risks now. Corporate campaigns can also be more coordinated and sophisticated because of technology, including digital communications, connecting people and businesses.   

Labor unions are experts at exploiting various company vulnerabilities, and as mentioned, some you wouldn’t think would be under the purview of labor unions. Though managers should participate in a union vulnerability assessment, the risk is that they aren’t fully aware of the extent of all the risks today - internal and external risks. It’s recommended you partner with a  management consultancywho is an expert in current labor law and stays on top of labor union strategies and areas of focus.    

The following are just some of the factors that contribute to corporate campaign vulnerability. Notice the diversity of the factors that can become a trigger for a corporate campaign.   

  • Strengths, practices, and policies – human resources, charity practices, mission and goals, board of directors, governance, executives, partners, social and environmental policies  
  • Challenges – utilizing global low-wage labor, non-renewable resources extraction, addressing climate change through operations, ESG, response to economic conditions like inflation forcing unpopular decisions, addressing social justice, supply chain interruptions leading to layoffs.  
  • Finances profitability, compensation schedule, billing and collections, charity support and contributions, debt, tax exemptions, investors.  
  • Operations - customer relations, overtime, compliance with federal and state laws, choice of operational locations (not serving underrepresented communities), site closings or openings, safety practices, hiring and promotion practices, utilization of independent contractors, supervisory status.  
  • Legal – lawsuits by employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, sentinel or safety events that result in death or harm, compliance with federal and state laws, zoning, mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, moving operations to international locations  
  • Communications – -internal and external communications systems, relationships with key stakeholders, community relations, choice of advocacy  
  • Facilities – compliance with federal and state regulations, construction quality, zoning, safety features, security  

Labor unions will even use your marketing campaign as a springboard for attacking your company, claiming things like an ad proves your organization is not culturally knowledgeable, and that’s why your diverse employees are not treated equally.   

In some cases, the union attacks on companies and industries are supported by various media. For example, documentaries and films take a union issue to the public, like the documentary Rotten, which claims the food industry as a whole is corrupt, and InHospitable, which focuses on healthcare system issues and attacks American hospitals.  

The labor union looks for your pressure points, which could be economical, public, political, and/or internal, and leverages what it sees as weaknesses to force card checks or get union demands met during negotiations of the collective bargaining agreement.   

corporate campaign vulnerability

How can We Conduct a Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment?  

With so many traditional and untraditional foci of labor unions, your vulnerability to a corporate campaign is multiplied. The best place to start identifying vulnerabilities is to look inward first at operations and administrative functions. “Performing a corporate campaign vulnerability assessment is an important first step for employers,” says IRI’s Moll. ”It’s a sophisticated SWOT analysis that helps employers develop appropriate strategies for their playbooks. The playing field has changed in that labor disputes were once between the labor union, employees, and the employer. The corporate campaign brings in outside forces to exert pressure on the employer.”   

The general process includes a series of steps that accumulate facts and information. First, a comprehensive look at the organization is taken as well as how unions have used corporate campaign tactics against industry peers. The assessment varies by industry, but the consultant will talk with leaders and subject matter experts across a client’s departments, including communications, community affairs, finance, operations, compliance, and legal. A lot of research is performed to see what a union’s opposition research departments may uncover about your business, the business leaders, and the board members.   

Consider your vulnerabilities from the perspective of what you would focus on if you were a union organizer. Put yourself in the mind of a union researcher. Think about narratives that could be spun about your organization and your leadership. Work to address the issues or develop your plan for communicating if a union starts to use them against your organization.  

The basic process is as follows.  

  • Conduct thorough background research – media coverage, competitor analysis, financial, demographic, annual reports, customer satisfaction surveys  
  • Interview all Officers from the C-Suite to VPs and directors  
  • Interview subject-matter experts such as Accounting, Finance, Communications, Compensation, Facilities, Legal, HR  
  • Prepare a Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment report.  

Be Proactive, Not Reactive to Avoid Reputation and Brand Damage  

Waiting for a labor union attack is a sure way to experience brand and reputation damage. An attack on an organization’s credibility can be costly and damaging, particularly in today’s fast-moving world of social media. IRI’s specialized Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment identifies existing and potential vulnerabilities a union may use in a campaign designed to undermine the organization’s reputation and assesses the organization’s ability to respond effectively.  

Your highly effective Assessment will take an in-depth look at specific areas where your organization could be vulnerable: Finances, Operations, Legal, Communications, and Facilities. The proven Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment will provide you with the insight you need to protect your organization.  

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.