Building ships and employee relations

November 06, 2013

Finally, the sad news officially broke on BBC Breakfast after 8.30am today that Portsmouth will cease to build ships after a 500 year history of doing so. Govan and Scotstoun yards in Glasgow await confirmation of their fate which could be tomorrow. Or maybe today. Depending.

Announcements for all three had been scheduled for tomorrow with the prospect of more than 1,000 job losses. The sad fact is that escalating costs of the current aircraft carriers being built are prohibitive and there are no new orders forthcoming.

The news was broken through the media which with no disrespect intended, is the worst possible way for affected employees to find out. The lead time for deals on new ships must be huge given the sums involved so there really must be nothing at all visible in the pipeline. At the same time this fact must have been evident for sometime.

So given that, good crisis communications and reputation management tells us that key stakeholders such as investors and affected employees are morally and legally the primary groups to advise first – it is interesting to observe how this has instead played out in the public glare of the media spotlight.

Media coverage reflected that perhaps the announcement had been brought forward because of the increasingly tense situation. In fact this was crisis communications quickly recovering the situation.

When organisations commit to a culture of openess and transparency in their communications – this means ‘warts and all’. It also means that there is implicit commitment that in adverse situations where employees are likely to split into the two groups – affected and unaffected – the overriding objective will be to tell it all, tell it first and tell it fast to the affected group, the shareholders and then the remaining employees.

Ideally – tell it face-to-face would be another key principle to follow. Obviously social media has manouevred itself firmly into the mix and carefully choreographed communications of the past, have to skillfully incorporate this while preserving the basic principles of tell it all, tell it first and tell it fast to the key audiences.

Technology now can enable disparate groups to engage in simultaneous announcements with an element of face-to-face contact. In the case of the Portsmouth announcement – it is likely that simply bringing people together relatively quickly in a suitable space – was entirely feasible and without much technological requirement. It is quite likely too that this could have been achieved earlier resulting in a change in media focus to be more about possible options for the future of those remaining.

Getting this whole process ‘right’ is crucial. First and foremost for employees – to let the affected know what they will get, when they will get it and what to do next. For the unaffected to demonstrate vision and leadership and share the new plan for the future so that they remain engaged, committed and with a sense of security.

Being open to feedback, both emotional and objective is also important during the process as the assembled group represents a wealth of knowledge, skills and experience. They can share in creating the new vision of a shared future.

Then for investors – to convey that while a difficult situation with a huge impact on profits – the leadership are in control of the situation and carving out the way forward. On all counts reputation is then preserved which, as a continuing employer and part of the local communities in which they operate – is key to staying in business and generating a profit to secure the futures of all those remaining and dependant local suppliers.

Delivering bad news is never easy and not something many organisations actively relish but done well, can be a vital factor in how the ensuing story plays out.