Strategic Labor Communications Planning

Strategy refers to carefully designing and planning for a particular purpose to gain an advantage. Labor communications refer to communication to stay union-free or address union activities like a union organizing campaign. Combine strategic and labor communications, and you have a coordinated planning process for enhancing labor relations, developing and implementing leadership initiatives, promoting effective internal communications, and protecting the organization’s reputation. The strategic labor communications plan reaches and engages the right audience internally and externally. A well-developed plan incorporates various communication tools and leadership messaging to ensure the communication plan reaches a variety of constituencies in the most effective way.  

What is Strategic Labor Communications Planning All About?

Labor relations is the relationship between an organization’s leadership and the workforce. This makes it sound simple, but any manager can attest that it’s not. Many elements impact labor relations and determine employee engagement, the quality of employee relations, union vulnerability, and corporate reputation in the local community and the general public’s eye. What are employees thinking? What influence are labor unions having on the workforce? What is the public’s perspective of the company? What is being said online by employees and community members? Do employees trust management and what leaders communicate? 

Labor communications should start before there is a union organizing campaign. The strategic labor communications plan is important to developing a strong culture of communications and regular outreach to employees and key stakeholders. Many union organizing campaigns begin because employees believe they have a lack of voice due to the communication system being inadequate and the employee experience not being considered. Establishing the communication culture before there is union activity ensures your organization is always ready to quickly prepare for, respond to, and manage a union organizing campaign.   

strategic labor communications


Strategic labor communications planning strives to

  • Link corporate communications to business strategy 
  • Maintain consistent messaging that adheres to the organization’s mission and culture 
  • Build or maintain employee engagement 
  • Reinforce positive employee relations 
  • Give employees a voice 
  • Reinforce shared purpose 
  • Obtain input from all stakeholders 
  • Provide feedback 
  • Inform employees of business decisions impacting employees to reduce the chances of misunderstandings and grievances 
  • Educate employees on the value of staying union-free 
  • Educate the public on corporate perspectives on labor relations 
  • Communicate with all relevant constituencies 

Without planning for strategic labor communications, the communications system is at risk of experiencing gaps. For example, it may exclude certain groups of employees or fail to address community members and customers. It may also risk poor alignment with the company mission and values and not performing as needed through execution failure and selection of the wrong communication tools. Lack of planning may also lead to failure to communicate with constituencies with necessary regularity. Critically, an ineffective communication system may also not give employees opportunities for feedback, one of the labor union’s arguments for unionizing.   

In Deloitte’s Global 2021 Human Capital Trends report, there is a lengthy discussion on how the worker-employer relationship is being disrupted, and one way is “purpose unleashed.” The author writes about the signals that the employee-employer future is headed towards “purpose unleashed,” saying,   

“Workers, customers, regulators, and interest groups are requesting or mandating new purpose-aligned measures from employers. 

Purpose shows up in job descriptions, hiring practices, and performance metrics. 

Organizations are taking stances, internally and externally, on issues they otherwise may have stayed silent about in response to growing demands from workers and customers.” 

Strategic labor communications planning is a key process for reinforcing shared purpose internally, a powerful approach to engagement and sharing stances on issues externally. This holds true before, during, and after union activity. Shared purpose drives consistent messaging.   

What Makes a Communications Plan Strategic? 

Rick Schell at Rice University teaches leadership communication and points out that the word “strategic” has a specific meaning. It is strategic when it:  

  • Has target audiences – define the specific audiences you want to communicate with, recognizing different audiences have different priorities, concerns, experiences, expectations, and trust in your organization 
  • Context – define the context, recognizing key relationships and events that are important to each audience. 
  • Intended outcomes – the set of specific purposes to achieve, like instruction and persuasion; identify what people need to know and what you want them to do as a result of the communication. 
  • Media – choose the most appropriate communication media for the audience. 
  • Messengers – choose people who are the most effective communicators, considering qualities like status, expertise, and relationship with the audience.  

Developing an Effective Labor Communications Strategy 

Strategic labor communication planning develops a strong message that engages internal and external constituencies. An effective labor communication strategy will:  

  • Inform and persuade employees through frequent communications 
  • Be designed for speed, with the ability to reach employees across the organization 24/7, including field workers, deskless workers, and remote workers. 
  • Include open dialogue, face-to-face communications, and reliable responses to questions in written materials that employees can review when they have time available 
  • Include digital communications like social media, apps, emails, a dedicated website, and other internet-based tools and platforms 
  • Anticipate key issues in organizing threads with prepared union campaign resources in messaging that have already received the necessary legal review and executive approval 
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The Many Faces of Communication in Labor Relations 

Everyone in the organization has a communication role, but there are external people and organizations that also have input and need feedback. Communication support and services include materials geared to and tailored by and for key stakeholders, which, depending on the circumstances, may include:   

  • CEO and executive team – These are the people responsible for determining and protecting the organizational culture, which will surely be attacked by unions and employees who support unions. They establish the communication tone in the organization. They also handle sensitive situations where senior communication holds the most weight and is needed to demonstrate consistent organizational messaging. For example, when a union makes false statements about the organization during a union organizing campaign or strike, it’s the top leaders who often make internal and public statements to preserve the culture of positive employee relations while correcting false union statements.   
  • Managers and supervisors – They have a role as daily direct communicators with employees, peers, and colleagues. What they say can have a profound impact on whether a company can stay union-free or how a union organizing campaign proceeds. Most unfair labor practices (ULPs) are created at the point of interaction between managers and frontline supervisors, and employees. They need to be fully trained leaders in labor relations, and the communication system should reach all of them. For example, a custom leader website can maintain direct connections and convey critical information and guidance.   
  • Employees – The communication system gives employees tools and other paths for expressing issues, concerns, ideas, and other input. It also enables leadership listening and two-way feedback. Examples include an employee-facing website, videos, letters, email, social media, apps, and posters.  
  • Board of Directors – The Board of Directors has a fiduciary responsibility to set and communicate the organization’s strategic vision. The board also articulates priorities. The Board of Directors is now often a direct target of negative communication from constituencies, like unions, media, activists, community members, and others. During a crisis, the board plays a crucial role in providing risk oversight and governance. Board members need to be kept current on activities impacting labor relations. 
  • Customers – Your customers can communicate with your organization in a variety of ways. For example, it could be through customer service, or they may go directly to the media to express anger over topics like lack of diversity and inclusion or how operations damage a community’s environment. Sometimes, customers show public support for union organizing campaigns through actions like boycotts. Strategic labor communications planning includes determining who and how your leaders will communicate with customers and keeping them informed of company policies as they relate to labor relations.   
  • Media – Communicating with the external media is a major requirement during positive and negative events of interest to the public to strengthen or protect the company’s reputation. Keeping the media informed of corporate policies impacting communities and responding to media stories concerning organizational actions is as important as responding to media concerning labor union events impacting the organization. 
  • Elected officials – With a pro-union federal government, elected officials are publicly supporting employees who want to unionize. They have easy access to a variety of media sources and can exert influence on their constituencies and colleagues. Your organization should engage them frequently and constructively to explain the truth about things like company policies, workplace conditions, the impact of unionization on the organization’s employees, the community impacts should the business unionize, and the impacts on business performance. Large companies may lobby elected officials concerning labor relations laws, another form of communication. 
  • Community leaders – Every organization operates in a community, and the quality of communication with community leaders is important to maintaining good relations. During a union organizing campaign or strike, community leaders may support or not support the company. The quality of the business-community relationship has a direct impact on the community response. You will need to engage community leaders through the strategic labor communications plan. 

Your strategic labor communications plan will include formal policies and procedures for communicating with internal and external constituencies. Each business will need a customized strategic plan that fits the business model, workforce structure, and communities of operation. It is a proactive effort to manage labor relations through effective communication.   

Prepared for Union Activity 

The Board of Directors and C-suite leaders should now ask whether the company is fully prepared for potential union activity at any time. A key element of preparedness is the strategic labor communications plan. Given the importance of the plan, many companies obtain the assistance of corporate communication consultants who can provide the information and guidance developed through experience with a variety of companies across industries.  

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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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