With the summer holidays approaching, I have been thinking about trips to the beach and given that context, media reports about the suspension and resignation of volunteer crew at the RNLI Whitby Lifeboat have caught my attention (BBC report).

As a longstanding supporter of the RNLI, it saddens me to see the incident involving the Whitby boat mishandled to the point where there are allegations of unfair dismissal based upon social media posts which have a negative impact upon an important organisation and this is a reminder of the importance of media relations in some employment disputes.

Increased access to personal publication, often via social media and the growing willingness of the established print media to present social media posts as fact (lazy journalism) has created a real challenge for HR practitioners who are involved in disputes between disaffected employees and their employer.  This situation is compounded in the case of public sector employers or organisations which have an established public profile.

Public interest in HR disputes is nothing new.  I still recall the sleepless nights that I experienced while advising an Irish food manufacturing business during a dispute with its engineers who had commenced a “hunger strike” outside of the factory gates.  What is new is increased access to and familiarity with social media which has increased the speed of publication and reduced time for reflection and second thoughts.  Additionally, once a publication has been mentioned or reposted by an influential social media author/commentator, the subsequent dissemination of the publication could be extremely swift and wide ranging.

The easy solution to these type of situations is to avoid them whenever possible. Settlement agreements can play a role in sensitive dismissals, but proactive management is critical. Employers are frequently inclined to spend time on ensuring that they are following their processes and while I normally recommend this approach, it can be problematical in these situations as the employee will frequently strike the first blow in the media relations battle. It is prudent to anticipate this challenge and ensure that your corporate communications advisors and lawyers are engaged as soon as possible to develop a proactive strategy. No one should need to have a solicitor on speed dial but over my career I have come to recognise that I am frequently consulted by Clients after the point where I could have made a real difference and my role has then become a loss mitigation exercise.

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