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Public catching on to fast-food strikes

Richard Berman is an NRN contributor and president of Berman and Company, a Washington-based communications firm. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

As the so-called fast food “strikes” roll into their third year, people are increasingly tuning them out. The recent glossed-over protests were simply the latest illustration of the public fatigue that has begun to define them. This is cause for concern for Big Labor, which has been funding, organizing and participating in these non-strike strikes.

So far the noise has been generated greatly by a well-funded media relations campaign by the public relations firm BerlinRosen. But this campaign has started to look very bumpy of late.

BerlinRosen has experimented with a new strategy in an attempt to excite press attention: Keep quiet about the protests until the last moment in an effort to market them as “spur of the moment.” This strategy backfired as the press and public greeted them with a collective shrug, despite the usual turnout by SEIU organizers.

BerlinRosen will learn from this mistake. With Big Labor’s funding, it will adapt its strategy in an attempt to replicate past success in turning a smattering of dissatisfied workers into major press events. But it may be too late. The public has caught on, recognizing these protests for what they are: carefully managed stage events.

The Associated Press has described BerlinRosen’s media strategy: Tip off TV crews in big cities to a promised employee protest, then pack that location with “strikers” (read: union organizers) long enough for the crews to film a segment. This explains why there has been little “strike” action in smaller cities, where the potential for media coverage is small.

Last year reporters uncovered another BerlinRosen mistake when they found that protesters had all been given the same talking point: “I can’t afford shoes for my children.” They also found, when trying to get a comment from a fast-food worker, that they were directed to PR agents who were high-level BerlinRosen employees. You wouldn’t think true organic protests would need to be so carefully scripted.

The public’s awakening to what these strikes really are shows what a dangerous game faking a grassroots movement — astroturfing  can be. BerlinRosen has already learned this lesson from its failed campaign, paid for by the UFCW, against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. But while it works, it can be lucrative. According to filings with the Labor Department, BerlinRosen took in over $6 million from labor unions in just the last two years.

To prevent threats to this revenue stream, BerlinRosen has swiftly moved to silence its critics. When my organization pointed out the factual errors, BerlinRosen reacted with a hysterical e-mail to the editorial boards of major newspapers. Their plea was to ignore our criticisms of the firm’s clients. (Hypocritically, the e-mail criticized my organization for receiving voluntary business support but made no mention of BerlinRosen’s own multimillion-dollar union support, which comes from union dues paid by mostly low-wage union members.)

BerlinRosen and Big Labor’s desperation will only grow as the public continues to tune out the fast-food strikes​ in recognition of what they really are: a not-so-slick PR campaign.

Do you think the public perception of fast-food strikes is changing? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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