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A year of discontent - how can organisations deal with comms around strikes?

It may be the start of a new year, but the widespread discontent felt across workers in many sectors last year hasn’t gone away. Whether it’s rail workers, nurses, teachers or driving examiners, it would seem everyone is taking strike action as they call for pay rises in line with inflation.

Last week, nursing strikes took place at 55 Trusts in England, affecting a quarter of hospitals and community services. On the 16 January, the National Education Union (NEU), one of the trade unions representing the teaching profession, likewise announced its intention to strike in February and March.

As different unions seek to exert maximum pressure on the Government, a general strike, whilst not inevitable, is looking increasingly likely. While each union and profession have their own individual concerns, the fundamental issue for many industries is the same: they believe pay hasn’t kept up with inflation, and years of underinvestment - whether in the health service, trains or schools - have left staff demoralised and services under huge pressure.

Getting public support

With an increasing number of strikes planned, the outcome of an industrial dispute is, in large part, determined by the presence or absence of public support. Last month, YouGov found that while 66% and 63% of the public support striking nurses and ambulance workers respectively, almost 50% oppose rail strikes. Organisations and institutions - whether public or private - attempting to manage communication around such strikes must consequently provide clear and concise information, to prevent the public becoming desensitised to strike action and zoning out.

In particular, there is a need to balance positive relations with staff and trade unions, whilst at the same time protecting businesses and institutions. There are some hugely effective union representatives, including RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, who is arguably the most well-known union official and has shown himself to be a master communicator. Despite the disruption, Lynch has been able to win over the public and has been consistently praised by his supporters for his clear communication style and for getting one over his opponents with blunt politeness.

It is vital to communicate

To counteract such strong narratives, it’s important for organisations to be equally clear in their communications. It’s crucial to ensure you get the right information out and across all channels - including the media, your website, and social media channels.

The information you choose to communicate must be clear, concise and provide the information that is required - so if trains are cancelled does it affect all services, if ambulance workers are on strike what do you do in the case of a genuine emergency?

By providing this information as soon as possible you can remove some of the uncertainty around planned strike action and allow people to make alternative plans where possible. It’s equally important that if plans change last minute and strikes are suspended or cancelled that this communicated quickly and clearly, to prevent an information vacuum from developing.

Internal comms tips

Finally, in terms of internal communications, employers and organisations should engage directly with employees and avoid allowing conversations to be funnelled through the trade union with which they are negotiating. This will help to ensure that the communication accurately represents the employer’s current position. It may also prevent issues from needlessly escalating through misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

How to break the deadlock

When it comes to breaking the deadlock between unions and the government over strikes, the key factor will be open communication. Union leaders are taking to the airwaves saying they want to negotiate, but can’t negotiate with themselves. It’s crucial government ministers show they are willing to talk - and listen - in order to try to resolve this dispute.

Written by Louise Stewart, partner at stakeholder solutions firm Penta

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