NEW YORK, March 26—With union organizers increasingly targeting employees in the high-tech sector, and more companies seeking a win-win approach to labor negotiations, Hill & Knowlton has launched a formal labor communications team, an extension of the firm’s existing employee communications practice that will be headed by agency veteran Frank Mankiewicz.

According to Hill & Knowlton’s U.S. president Tom Hoog, the firm has recently been involved in several labor-related issues, and has represented both unions and employers. “Historically, companies have relied on their lawyers to develop strategy, and the result is that a lot of these situations have been highly confrontational,” says Hoog. “But more and more companies are looking for win-win solutions, because there’s a growing realization that employers and employees have common interests.”

Several agencies have a track record in helping companies labor relations, including Flieshman-Hillard, Ketchum and Golin/Harris, where former H&K executive Keith Burton now heads the employee communications group, but few have formalized the practice. In Washington, D.C., The Kamber Group has long specialized in working with labor unions and helping to organize corporate campaigns.

Hoog says he sees three areas of opportunity for H&K, including the technology sector, where unions have been making inroads, winning a major victory at Verizon and staging an organizing drive at; downsizing, which creates very specific labor relations issues; and the economic downturn, which has companies looking for productivity gains.

The H&K team includes vice chairman Frank Mankiewicz, who has worked with unions including the United Steelworkers of America and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Mankiewicz will serve as group advisor, with senior managing director Kevin Elliott as west coast lead, senior managing director Tina-Marie Adams as central region lead and senior managing director Tom Harmening as east coast lead. More than 30 or the firm’s professionals have labor relations experience, in industries ranging from agriculture to airlines to telecommunications to transportation.

“We can offer clients an insider’s perspective from both sides of the labor line, and we have the geographic and topical breadth arguably unmatched by any other full-service firm,” says Mankiewicz.  

The labor relations asset group will assist companies in four areas that constitute the “lifecycle” of labor relations: culture building, negotiations, transformations and organizing drives. As part of its lifecycle approach, the labor communications team may involve members of H&K’s national employee communications team as well as its employee communications unit Banner McBride North America. The agency’s approach also emphasized the importance of helping a company’s senior management team develop an informed, productive and collaborative work environment. 
“We find that companies that choose to have a responsible dialogue with their stakeholders around the issues raised by organized labor are more likely to achieve greater public support and preserve their brands and businesses,” says Harlan Teller, executive vice president and director of the firm’s worldwide corporate practice.  “We encourage, foster and build the means for communication between management and employees, shareholders, the community, media and other external audiences.”