On breaking bad news, and breaking trust.
Ahhhhh…. here I go again. Talking about the day job, the union that allegedly represents my interests, and not about fun things, like fashion and how to make fabulous things .
I beg your patience again while I talk to my work friends, colleagues, and tweeps.
Before I became a policy wonk, and after I was a reporter, I was what you’d delicately call a spin doctor. A flack. I worked in politics, and I worked in the private sector. I’d like to think I was well regarded in this area. Yes, I worked for That Government, and no, I’m not into union busting. A very senior Conservative war room veteran once told me he’d never seen a union in an organization that didn’t do something to deserve it - and I agree with him.
This isn’t about my politics. This is about shedding some light, as someone with a lot of knowledge about rolling out bad news, on what exactly has happened here - a normally very quiet union suddenly in turmoil.
What we have here is a failure to communicate - and ultimately a failure of trust. I’ll break it down for you.
1. Failure to manage expectations
AMAPCEO is not what I would call a particularly active union. Certainly, it doesn’t hold a candle to OPSEU - the other major public sector union - in size or muscle power. But the union sent out the call for members to engage, to write their deputies, to put up little flags - and the membership complied. It was, the union said, all about preserving the COC days. We knew a wage freeze was coming, but the union said we absolutely couldn’t give up the days that we earned in lieu of raises. Could. Not.
The union sent out a big hurrah that our efforts were not in vain… and then the kaboom came, buried in the terms of the deal. Not only were the COC days evaporated for two years, they were being clawed back and stripped from people who didn’t earn them, all for something not a lot of members paid attention to - something called Job Evaluation.
Not managing expectations is what has resulted in the membership having a collective case of whiplash.
2. Failure to communicate bad news
This one, this is where you’ve got to take a deep breath and just rip the goddamned bandaid off. It started with cheer that there’s a deal, the big hearty congratulations to the negotiating team, not a We’re Sorry. It then took days to find out that we were going to get clawed back vacation days out of this year, it took even longer to find out employees who don’t get COC were getting regular paid vacation ripped out from them as well. Days went by before we could get a copy of the agreement - an enormous thing that was locked down from being printed; the lock released after outcry.
This is not the way to roll out Really Bad News.
This has a two-fold effect: It destroys your credibility and it destroys trust. If you can’t go out there with the shitty news, if you bury it under self-congratulatory rhetoric, if you let people find out the bad news on their own, you’ve blown it. Not only that, but it gives rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories (theories which, for the record, I do not buy. I just think this is a communications fuck up.)
3. Failure to stick to the story
The stories out of AMAPCEO keep changing. That merit pay was exchanged for COC days. That managers are going to have to give employees flex time, or that it’s entirely at a manager’s discretion. That Job Evaluation is going to make things easier -but then thousands of members can’t see what their classification is going to be. It’s easy - either it is or it isn’t. It’s a complicated deal, but the failure to simply lay out the Big Whammies at the top of the message is what has led to even more mistrust.
4. Failure to know your audience
AMAPCEO seems not to have a clear idea of what we do for a living: We take long, complicated things and we break them down. We find the useful. We do broad risk analysis, we crunch numbers, and we look for ideas and options. We ask a barrage of questions. We do comparative analysis. To leave a group of people like that in a void, by making them have to beg to see the deal, to keep changing things on them, and to bury the really bad news - these are all things that will make your audience tune you out.
Worse, they’ll become suspicious of you. Again, more mistrust.
5. Failure to live in the present
The meeting I went to had the president raising The Spectre Of Mike Harris. I’ve got some breaking news here, just for Gary Gannage. Gary, if you’re reading this: Mike Harris has been gone for nearly a decade. More news: Those “young people” you gently mocked in that first big meeting are the people who now pay your wages, and they’re your fastest growing demographic. That flinching, that singling out, combined with bringing up a Premier who is long gone from the Whitney block - that to me demonstrated that the face of the civil service has dramatically changed, but the union hasn’t kept up with it. This deal, and the messaging around it, basically tells all those young people that their future with this organization is hopeless - and that’s the last thing they should be feeling. We *need* them. Their energy, their ideas, their understanding of how the world is transforming. Telling the there’s no retention plan is akin to showing them the exit door.
6. Failure to take heat
As a press flack for That Government Who Shall Not Be Named, four days a week my job was to click my heels and stride over to the Pink Palace, where I faced a myriad of screaming, angry people. Often, they were protestors. Angry moms. Angry seniors. Mostly, but not always, it was angry reporters. Adam Vaughan, the now city councillor, once told me I made him glad his parents were dead. I had another reporter scream inches from my face that I was a fucking cunt in the middle of a crowded room.
So, yeah, I get how tough it is on a person when you’re being personally attacked in the middle of a fairly crappy situation.
But here are the rules: You don’t snark, you don’t talk back. Breath. Shut up before you say something you’ll regret. You can say, “I understand that you’re upset, what can I do?” and then do it. You give them some breathing room. You don’t run, you don’t escalate, you don’t bark at your detractors.
You pull your shit together and you act like a goddamned professional. Calm. You can cry in your office.
(Aside: You’re all starting to understand why I left, aren’t you?)
7. Failure to recognize action and reaction
You say there’s unprecedented political interference with this, and then ask a group of people who are professionally trained to bristle at those words - political interference- to give that political interference their support. This makes NO SENSE. Either McGuinty’s minions are running the show and you call them on it, or you do not mention it.
The thing I like most about my job is that I do not work for political interests. I’m not there to get someone re-elected. That’s their worry. My job is to respect the mandate, to figure out the options to make that mandate work, and run the myriad of programs no one talks or thinks about, but still need to run.
I have the highest respect for those who run for public office and who are resilient enough to make a career out of it. I know it’s gruelling and it’s thankless. I have a deep protective sentiment for democracy and democratic principles - a government gets elected, and my job is to figure out how to implement the mandate the people of Ontario voted for.
But my boss is not the Premier, it is the Secretary of Cabinet. We take an oath to the Crown, not the Whatever Party Won the Last Election. This is drilled into us. You can’t chuck out a phrase like “political interference”, so hugely offensive to this group, that the Premier’s Office interfered with this negotiation, and then ask us to quietly hold their noses and vote.
8. Perception is everything
The frequency at which pro-ratification emails are landing in my workplace inbox is increasing. They seem to be breeding like rabbits, each more earnest and pleading than the one before, each with a higher threat of armageddon if ratification is not achieved. I’m hearing that people are being told by their union reps to keep their negative opinions to themselves. I had an internet troll passingly call me and other critics of this deal union bashers and closeted neo-cons.
This is getting very ugly very quickly.
And this is what happens when you screw up this kind of communication on this kind of scale. A number of people don’t trust you and lose faith in you. They gave you their trust, and now it’s *gone*. Kaput. You don’t get that back by spinning, by trying to quell dissent, by sending out another variation of your message out every five minutes. You’ll get a lot further a lot faster if you march out there, say you recognize that there is not only mistrust, but a deep sense of betrayal among the people whose working dollars go to your paycheque.
Once again, I’m not going to tell you how to vote. But it is important that you *do* vote. And that whatever happens, you’re all ready to work together for What’s Next. Because, even if we get past this, this union is a house divided.
What’s Next is AMAPCEO needs to get the trust of its members back. I’ll give you a hint: you don’t do it by yelling, blaming, accusing and spinning. Especially not with this group. If we liked the yelling, blaming, accusing and spinning, we’d go work for our political masters. Every one of those members who feels betrayed has valid reason, and AMAPCEO needs to show that they recognize this.
And for God’s sake, please have a communications plan this time.