CTU Strike – a Modern Labor Dispute

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    Astute PR moves from both sides in a contemporary crisis

    Savvy parties have been using the court of public opinion to sway disagreements to their side for years, so why not the two sides facing off in the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike? With both teachers and city leadership jockeying for position with what could only be carefully planned and coordinated moves, they’ve got a real war of reputation on their hands.

    A PRDaily article by Michael Sebastian and Matt Wilson shared a bit of the tack each side is taking:

    “I think they’re both playing their cards right,” Jamie Izaks, president of All Points Public Relations, told PR Daily. “It’s remarkable how savvy both sides are at this.”

    On Monday morning, teachers established picket lines outside of their schools before thousands of them gathered in downtown Chicago to march alongside parents and other supporters. They vowed to stick together until a fair contract is reached.

    “[The union] has a good sense of what the media wants,” said Wes Bleed, vice president of Mack Communications in Naperville, Ill., and former WGN radio anchor. “They know how to tell their story. At the rallies, they’re getting big numbers. They’re organized.”

    While teachers’ marched, the mayor held a press conference at one of the churches where students can gather during the strike.

    “Don’t take it out on the kids of Chicago if you have a problem with me,” Emanuel said while standing in front of a group of children—a savvy PR move on his part, according to Thom Serafin, CEO of Serafin and Associates in Chicago.

    Indeed, the sometimes abrasive Emanuel, who’s known to square off with reporters, seems to be gaining points with the public.

    “I think he’s becoming a little more of a sympathetic character in this whole thing,” said Bleed, who also noted one failing of the mayor. “I don’t think he did a great job of explaining why they couldn’t come to terms.”

    As with just about everything else these days, the battle also spilled over into social media, complete with celebs Tweeting their support of one side or another and a whole slew of hashtags allowing the public to track the conversation.

    This situation, perhaps the first truly modern teacher’s strike, should serve as a warning to employers of all kinds. No longer will there be quiet picketing that goes unnoticed by all but a few local media outlets, gone are the days of low-attendance meetings at the local head office.

    To be successful, contemporary crisis management for labor disputes will have to embrace the reality that the entire drama can and will be played out across social media, and in this way (if the story is juicy enough, at least) gain a reach that could only be imagined a few years ago. In order to navigate the crisis and return to business as usual, employers will have to not only appease disgruntled employees, but also convince the public that they’ve done the right thing. No easy task, to be sure.

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    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training, and co-host of The Crisis Show. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]