Friday, December 19, 2008

Manufacturing PR

An interesting article in Business Review asserts that the manufacturing industry has a PR problem.

A key statement in the article, by Candace Beeke, all but writes the obit for manufacturing jobs:

Michigan likely suffers the same negative attitude toward manufacturing -- considering it an antiquated, archaic industry.

But such statements are too broad brush. It's not true that all employees or students see manufacturing jobs as dead ends. Nor do companies that manufacture actual, tangible products see the end of manufacturing for the state. In fact, smart manufacturers recognize that recruiting and retaining skilled manufacturing employees is vital, and indeed good PR.

Susan Koole, in Corporate Communications at West Michigan manufacturer Herman Miller, sees things differently than the picture painted in the Business Review article:

Personally, I see this issue more as a PR opportunity because of what I experience everyday. For example, we host hundreds of customers each year and the majority of them request a visit to our seating operations facility in Holland. They're fascinated by our production methods and the skills required to ship out thousands of chairs every week.

If customers are fascinated by manufacturing processes, it's hard to label the entire industry as 'antiquated.' The PR challenge is to position manufacturing jobs as viable, interesting, and sustainable careers in an environment when many such employees are being laid off. Koole notes that Herman Miller works to encourage employees facing job elimination with professional development opportunities, including volunteering for special projects, cross-training on a variety of product lines, and utilizing tuition reimbursement.

Manufacturing might also look cool when products get national attention. Such was the case yesterday when Herman Miller's LED Leaf Light was featured in the Wall Street Journal in a list of 'eco-friendly' products.

The timing of the product plug was perfect, coming on a day when Herman Miller announced in a conference call that profits are down 20 percent and that layoffs and buyouts could affect 600 employees.

So the PR problem for Herman Miller and any manufacturer is to maintain good relationships with employees in bad economic times. Humans will always need manufactured goods, and those goods will be produced by manufacturing employees. Nothing archaic about it. When the economy does turn around, those companies that have innovative products will grow fastest. And that will require the best employees. I think many manufacturers get that.

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