Tuesday, July 1, 2008, 9:09 PM

Some lawsuits are more than just lawsuits

America's favorite coffee shop is reminding us that some lawsuits are more than just lawsuits, particularly when the suit enters the court of public opinion. Starbucks has been subject to a series of grinding class action lawsuits in recent years alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most recently, a Superior Court Judge in California ordered Starbucks to serve up $100 million in backtips to its baristas, who claimed that supervisors were sharing tips in violation of state law.

Put yourself in a reporter's shoes for a minute: The enormity of Starbucks' market share, its rapidly growing and increasingly unionized workforce, and the ubiquitous role the company plays in American life makes such a story too good to pass up. When the press catches interest, the company's reputation is at stake with the public at large.

Lawsuits like this reinforce our belief that crisis planning is as valuable as crisis response. Forward-thinking companies identify vulnerabilities, anticipate challenges to their reputation, and plan accordingly. Enter McDonald's, the fast food giant that is taking an innovative approach to communicating with employees. McDonald's intends to hire a company blogger for its internal website - called "StationM" - to more effectively communicate with an increasingly web-based workforce. StationM also allows employees to network with one another, share photos and videos, discuss best practices, and - hopefully - build a sense of family pride in the McDonald's brand. The blog and internal website also provide McDonald's an avenue for preventing the types of challenges Starbucks faced by educating mid-level supervisors about acceptable and unacceptable pracitices at the workplace.

Hiring a blogger will not alone prevent FLSA lawsuits, particularly for companies like McDonald's and Starbucks that have combined workforces of nearly 900,000. However, innovative approaches to employees relations can help mitigate the challenges many companies face in such a litigious society.

Learn more about crisis planning at Womble Carlyle's Wag the Dog Strategic Communications Blog.

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