There are times when someone starts a fight, and a direct and strong response is required. Sometimes, when a controversy lands on your doorstep that could adversely affect your business, its necessary to fight back. Especially when you know your “opponent” has got it wrong. This takes not only guts and confidence, but also strategy and tenacity.
A client started a unique moving company based on the realization that moving is tremendously stressful, and to compound that moving company estimates never turn out to be accurate and customers are stuck with big bills for all sorts of extras they basically have no choice but to pay.
He established a company that would give customers one fixed rate for moving, no matter what the circumstances. It’s raining outside on the day of your move, or your table can’t be taken apart in six pieces, but instead requires 10? No problem — the price is the same as quoted. No surprises, no hidden costs.
The idea naturally took off.
This is a guy who built an innovative business from the ground up that succeeded by addressing a common problem. His company became known for being hardworking, honest, ethical, and for surpassing expectations for service. Like many businesses during the economic downturn, the company had layoffs; the moving and storage business is tied closely to the real estate market, which was imploding at the time.
A tiny group of former employees contacted unions, and the unions attempted to recruit inside the moving company. Adding to the drama, the union spread falsehoods about the company and stood outside its headquarters yelling at employees entering the premises.
The spectacle included a giant inflatable rat bouncing in the breeze, a favorite prop of union activists. (Those of you who live in New York City and other urban centers are familiar with the sight of the 12-and-a-half-foot ugly, grimacing gray rodent.)
The union’s false accusations and accompanying drama outside the office came as a surprise and personal attack to the management of the company, which had low turnover, high morale, and high employee satisfaction.
The company went so far as to install private showers and marble bathrooms for employees to use. Moving is a job where workers sweat, so the company wanted its staff to work the right way and feel good when they were finished with tough jobs.
The union organizers standing outside yelling about so-called unfair practices were a tiny group, but they made a lot of noise and attracted attention. They handed out forged fliers with fake pictures of the head of the union with President George W. Bush and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — they were clearly and almost comically fake cutouts.
It was really absurd, but someone with an agenda may not have seen it for what it was — a shabby cut-and-paste job.
The message was clear: We are powerful and can help you. Unfortunately, this kind of ploy can work on a lot of employees because, let’s face it, the boss is often painted as a creep.
This campaign of misinformation was starting to take a personal toll on the mild-mannered CEO of the company and could have had serious consequences for his business and employees. This was a public relations nightmare that had very real consequences.
Unionization of this business would have resulted in layoffs, increased expenses for both worker and employer, and numerous other headaches that don’t improve anyone’s job.
The company followed all of the necessary and numerous laws governing conduct leading up to a union vote. They used proper messaging, legal tactics, and distributed positive, truthful information to their employees.
After a while, the screaming activists caught the interest of a local reporter at a New York cable news station. I remember one dispute I had with the reporter. The reporter had called me to say the station was going to do a story on how poorly the moving company treated its employees, and how it discriminated against them.
The reporter had no interest in listening to the other side of the story at all; he had made up his mind without performing any due diligence, meeting anyone from the firm, or visiting the company’s headquarters.
I didn’t want the story to air at all since the reporter didn’t seem willing to even listen to our version of the facts, tell both sides of the story, or acknowledge that the material he was basing his story on was fabricated and false. In situations like this, lawyers are often hesitant to act because damage hadn’t been done so they don’t like to send legal letters.
But I knew a harsh letter had to go to the station explaining that the company would sue them and the reporter if the story went on the air because doing so would be disseminating blatant falsehoods.
While we were fighting the station, we were also waging an information war to inform employees. This is PR on a very localized, internal scale — all companies need to do PR with their employees. The unions were trying to take advantage of the workforce and it was up to us to educate them exactly what being a union member would mean for the company (and their wallets).
We did research on the cost to the employees of organizing and showed them that they would actually be earning less money and receiving fewer benefits if they did vote to join the union.
Before 7:30 the next morning, the reporter asked to speak to us outside, with cameras filming the demonstration. I was acting as the company spokesperson, and said I would be happy to speak to him inside, with the cameras initially off. I was eager to show him the company office, its unique environment, and excellent employee conditions.
There was no way I was going to do a street interview on film, with a rat in the background and a handful of people yelling. Why would I do an interview in the street?
We had an extensive off-camera discussion, and the reporter finally agreed to my terms so we went inside. I explained to him that not only would we sue the station for reporting a fabricated story but also sue him personally for damage to the company as his story was inaccurate and completely false.
At that point he started giving me his “facts,” which were blatantly lies. We had the authentic documentation he claimed to have and showed him within minutes exactly how he was wrong.
The reporter didn’t run the story because he had to admit that all the information he had was wrong. There was no story, and he ended up apologizing. When it came down to a vote, the company wasn’t unionized.
Ronn Torossian is one of America’s foremost Public Relations executives as founder/CEO of 5WPR, a leading independent PR Agency. The firm was honored as PR Firm of the Year by The American Business Awards, and has been named to the Inc. 500 List. Torossian is author of the best-selling "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations." For more of Ronn Torossian's reports, Go Here Now.
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