Industrial disputes are the exception in Ireland rather than the rule, the recent PR of Industrial Relations (IR) event heard.
While this may seem counter intuitive, given the how much we seem to read and hear of industrial action in the media, it belies the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. The focus within the industrial relations environment is on resolution and using the highly developed framework of IR agreements and mechanisms available.
The lunchtime forum heard from Bernard Harbor FPRII, Head of Communications with the IMPACT Trade Union, Irish Times Industry Correspondent, Martin Wall and Niall Quinn, MPRII, Deputy Managing Director, The Reputations Agency who presented on the employer side perspective.
Bernard noted that much of the coverage of IR tends to concentrate on ballots by Trade Unions. This is largely due to the common usage of ‘strike’ in the phrasing of industrial ballots which gives rise to the impression of a greater possibility of strikes than is often the case.
Bernard outlined his key elements in dealing with the communications around IR:
From his experience advising in several IR situations such as insolvency and redundancy Niall Quinn commented on the dynamic nature of these situations. He reiterated Bernard’s point that it was not always just about the dispute but also the work being done in the background. He also made the point to always bear in mind that once a dispute is over both parties have to work together.
Martin Wall noted that there are just a handful of industrial relations correspondents in the Irish media. Their role is principally news reporting with the primary issue being how an industrial relations situation affects the public. He observed that the recent Dublin Bus dispute was one of the most visited on the Irish Times website. But interest was not in the dispute per se. Rather it was about which buses were running or not and how commuters were being affected. Martin also noted that his role was to take information from both sides and report in the context of broader public policy or economic environment and likely implications. He was quite clear in pointing out that the media should not advocate for either side and that readers should not be able to ascertain the views of the correspondent.
He also outlined that correspondents were obliged to give balance to both sides in their reporting. This meant the employer and union sides, not necessarily between unions within a dispute. He outlined that the provision of accurate information by those involved to journalists helps in covering the situation accurately while being able to put faces to those affected gives a better focus to coverage.
In conclusion Bernard Harbor made the most succinct observation about the role of PR in the context of industrial relations: Good PR is important but it is never going to win you the dispute. But poor PR will definitely have the opposite effect.