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When HR issues turn into a PR test

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Managers may think they have taken all steps possible to prepare for an employment dispute, but experts in workplace matters suggest that companies still can be blindsided, especially if a dispute becomes public.

One example is the high-profile clash involving a longtime news anchor at abc27, who has filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Former anchor Flora Posteraro and her attorney, Charles Curley, allege that her new contract and assignments represented a demotion and retribution for her having spoken out about alleged gender discrimination by Bob Bee, who had been hired to manage the station’s news operations.

According to the complaint filed in February, Posteraro alleges that Bee gave preferential treatment to males, while denigrating some women staff members. An anonymous complaint filed last summer led to a company investigation. The company maintains that it didn’t find evidence to pursue further action.

Then, at the end of the year, the company began a restructuring that it said had been in the works as an overall effort to improve news coverage in the region. In that process, Posteraro was reassigned to weekend positions that, Curley said, would normally be given to a “rookie reporter” and, in doing so, the company effectively fired her. Posteraro had been with the station more than 20 years. Her last day was in March.

The company has said she refused to accept the new assignment, effectively meaning she resigned.

While the interpretation of facts in such cases can be in dispute, companies and managers can help minimize harm by following procedures outlined in employee handbooks, according to labor attorneys who advise clients on such matters. The experts stressed that they could not comment specifically on the abc27 situation but agreed to talk, generally, about what companies should do when facing problems.

Beyond handling matters internally, companies need to be prepared for issues to go public, and for customers and clients to respond in ways that could hurt the bottom line.

“Companies need to think what they want to do before, during and in the immediate aftermath,” said Rich Klein, of New York-based firm Rich Klein Crisis Management. “But what happens all too often is they already are in the middle of a crisis when they could have worked to stop the bleeding.”

In most cases, companies cannot discuss personnel matters lest they risk opening themselves up to more problems. But in a statement released April 6, abc27’s parent company, Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting Inc., said it felt compelled to respond publicly to “ensure that viewers, advertisers, legislators, regulators, the investment community and the public at-large receive accurate facts regarding what was a straightforward employment contract renewal process.”

In the abc27 situation, one advertiser, Capital BlueCross, suspended its advertising.

Klein said many companies make the mistake of not speaking out or of having a lawyer say something along the lines of “we will not try this case in the court of public opinion.”

“For one, it’s a cliché,” Klein said. “But you can lose in the court of public opinion before you even get into court.”

And public opinion, especially in an age of social media, where discontent can spread quickly, is what can damage the bottom line, he added.

That means companies must have plans in place regarding how to react long before there is a problem. Companies can predict what might happen — such as security breaches, safety lapses, storms that interrupt services — and devise public-relations plans. Those playbooks can be used for issues that arise that are off topic, he said, because the main exercise is thinking about how to react in advance.

“You have to be able to engage the public in some way,” Klein said.

One key is to make sure that the public-relations professionals and the attorneys are working together.

Attorneys who specialize in employment issues agreed, pointing out that they are not trained in public relations. Companies need to engage PR firms in advance, so everyone can react quickly.

“Good lawyers don’t necessarily make good public relations professionals,” said Christopher Carusone, a partner in the Harrisburg office of Cohen Seglias Pallas, Greenhall & Furman.

A mistake often is made by having an attorney act as the spokesperson, said David Freedman, a partner in the employment law group of Barley Snyder in Lancaster.

“I am a lawyer. I am not a PR guy,” Freedman said. Coordination is paramount, so more harm isn’t done. You don’t want comments made on social media to “become exhibit A” in a case, he said.

Freedman and Carusone both said preparation begins long before an incident, with clear policies and procedures outlined in employee handbooks and that have been vetted by a law team.

“That’s a given,” Carusone said. “You need to have that infrastructure in place.”

As problems arise, he added, it is important to have documentation in place, both for handling employee issues, as well as for planned changes or restructurings that might occur simultaneously. All personnel issues should be well documented. In addition, restructuring goals require intense planning that would involve meetings, consultations and other documents that would show that process is separate from personnel issues.

He and Freedman said timing can be everything. A company might be planning a major reorganization. If during that time an employee raises a separate concern, it can appear as if there has been retribution if reassignments happen immediately afterward. That might mean holding off on decisions until enough time had lapsed. There is no definitive length of time as each situation is unique, the attorneys said. However, it is important to ensure that consideration is at least given to the timing.

In its statement, Nexstar said the workplace complaints were made anonymously last summer and that months had passed before the overall reorganization. In her complaint, Posteraro alleges that during that time she asked management twice about her tenure and was reassured that she was a valued employee.

Another key is to make sure investigations into employee concerns are taken seriously and that judgments be made right away about how much to separate the manager who is the subject of the complaint from the investigation, as well as other decisions involving the reorganization, Freedman said.

Companies have an obligation to handle personnel matters privately. But once a situation goes public, they need to “get control over the situation” or risk losing customers and revenue, he said.

“The court of public opinion works much quicker than the wheels of justice,” Freedman said.

Michael Pavone, of Pavone Marketing Group Inc. in Harrisburg, said the age of social media can mean that damage can spread quickly. At Fox News, numerous advertisers dropped their commercials after television host Laura Ingraham tweeted about a survivor of the Parkland, Fla., shootings, saying he was “whining” about not getting into certain colleges.

The survivor, David Hogg, reacted by starting a hashtag movement that targeted advertisers of Ingraham’s show. Word spread quickly, and CNN reported Monday that the “The Ingraham Angle” averaged 14 and a half minutes of ads pre-controversy. That number was down to about seven minutes by the second night of the controversy when Ingraham went on vacation, CNN reported.

Pavone said it’s important for advertisers to “stick to core values.”

“If anything is going against that, then you should consider if you want to have your brand tied to that show,” he said. “You don’t want your marketing message aligned to something not aligned to your core values.”

Traditionally, news operations are run separately from the advertising and business side of a company. That separation has allowed news operations to maintain objectivity when pursuing articles and stories that might go against the bottom line, so news consumers could be assured that financial considerations were not influencing news decisions.

Those lines have become blurred as more people associate opinion-based news pundits, personalities and analysts with objective journalism, Pavone said. That blurring would make it more difficult for a news organization, in particular, to explain to advertisers why they shouldn’t drop their messages.

“It’s very blurry now,” he said.

That creates a set of public relations problems for news organizations. Top editors of the Washington Post, for example, have been explaining how their editorial and news operations are completely independent of the newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, whose other company, Amazon, has faced criticism from President Donald Trump. Trump also has criticized the Post.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said there is nothing new about advertisers pulling accounts because of displeasure with a news organization. Most legitimate news operations still separate the business side from the news-gathering side. Historically, she added, news organizations have had to continually explain that dynamic to customers and that hasn’t gotten easier in the age of social media.

One mistake that many companies make is that they stop monitoring the problem too early, thinking it will go away or has largely ended, Klein said.

“A crisis is not over until the public tells you it’s over,” he said.

If you go

What: Barley Snyder’s Employment Law Seminar

When: May 11, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Where: Spooky Nook Sports, 75 Champ Boulevard, Manheim, PA, 17545

Background: Sessions include attorney Jen Craighead presenting “The Price of Incivility: The Link Between Civility and Workplace Harassment”; Craighead and David Freeman will present “Workplace Investigations in the Era of the #MeToo Movement.”

More information: For a full agenda, go to http://www.barley.com/35th-annual-employment-law-seminar

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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