PR Lessons from Unions

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Great PR is often associated with Mad Men of Madison Ave, Silicon Valley wizards, or seasoned warriors on K Street. But that’s oversimplifying things, and underestimating some of the best PR operatives in the country – unions.

Long gone are days when unions accomplished their goals by simply picketing outside the employer’s office, or scaring passerby’s with giant inflatable rats. Intimidating unyielding employers with physical violence is also pretty much behind us. That’s because often you can accomplish a ton towards Public Relations campaigns.

A great example of true mastery in using PR as a weapon is Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) –  New Jersey’s largest health care union. What makes them especially good is their ability to utilize relationship with the media to play both defense and offence, often simultaneously.

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HPAE has a lot on its plate. There is the regular union business – squeezing local hospitals as tightly as possible to keep their base motivated. Then there is playing along with other unions, to ensure national recognition, and to count on support whenever body count is needed.  Add to that the support union leadership has to give to local politicians that give them the cover, and that would already be enough to keep a full time PR agency busy.

But HPAE is got more – it also has to deal with the fallout from an ongoing lawsuit filed by union members accusing the union leadership of actively and materially misleading union members about their dues and benefits. The same lawsuit also accuses the head of HPAE – Ann Twomey – of improper use of union funds by awarding most of the legal work for the union, totaling over $1.6 million for the period of 2008-2013, to her live-in boyfriend, Richard D. Loccke. Loccke is a partner with the Hackensack firm of Loccke, Correia, Limsky & Bukosky, a firm that received over $12 million in fees from HPAE prior to 2008 (the relationship between Twomey and Loccke allegedly goes back to the ‘70s).   Talk about crisis management.

So how does HPAE deal with all of that? We would give it a solid A on just about every front.

Offence: Several years ago HPAE was at war with Bayonne Medical Center over contracts for their nursing staff and other medical workers. The hospital received avalanche of negative publicity including attacks on its potential investors, accusations of overcharging, bullying, etc. What we find most fascinating is that by scanning over 17,000 news items related to the hospital it appears that virtually all of the negative publicity stops two years ago, once the union contract has been ratified, with HPAE getting what it wanted.

Even an intern at a mediocre agency can see the correlation here, and we all know that it doesn’t take much to make the generally liberal NY / NJ media as well as home-bred journalists to play along with the union.

Collaborations: Surveying the news related to HPAE you get to see how broadly this union of health care professionals sets its net. You can see union members on the streets picketing with Verizon and Taj Mahal Casino employees. You can see Ann Twomey forcefully arguing for stricter gun control laws, and other ways of extending the union protection to the politicians that support HPAE.

Defense: And what does one do when dealing with personal shortcomings like credible public accusations of negating fiduciary duty and personal enrichment at the expense of regular union members? Rise above it all and do bigger things. Like get involved with the Clinton campaign, and focus on getting the first female president elected. Rub shoulders with the right people at the Democratic convention. Play an active role in national unions like UFTE. Do all of the above and double down.

We can’t help but admire the solid PR acumen at the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union of New Jersey. Perhaps if Jean Oterson takes over once Ann Twomey goes off to Washington, she would consider opening a PR crash course for the folks on Madison Avenue. There is a lot to be learned.

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