Fortune 500 truck, bus and engine-maker Navistar enjoyed a long relationship with the City of Tulsa, Okla. Nearly 20 years ago, the company had repurposed a former aircraft manufacturing facility and forged a 40-year lease agreement with the City. The plant, operated by Navistar subsidiary IC Bus, grew into the world’s leading producer of school buses.
However, in July 2019, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum abruptly rejected Navistar’s request to extend the facility’s lease. City officials issued a notice of termination to Navistar effective for February 2020. Navistar negotiated a standstill to assess its options, including contingency planning to relocate the plant out-of-state.
Culloton + Bauer Luce, Navistar’s longtime public affairs firm of record, was asked to assess the looming public relations disaster.
The key was to take this dispute public, allowing Navistar employees, families, vendors, neighbors and supporters to voice support for Navistar staying.
In early May, CBL initiated the “Save Tulsa Jobs” campaign. Plant employees and supporters were recruited to send emails of support and make calls to Tulsa City Hall.
Navistar designated a dozen plant leaders to serve as “Plant Captains,” akin to precinct captains in a political campaign. The “Plant Captains” were trained, given talking points and FAQs that were then relayed to all 1,600 of the plant’s workforce and its union partners to amplify Navistar’s message.
CBL facilitated all campaign materials and website being translated into Spanish and Zomi, a Burmese dialect which many plant employees spoke. Employees fluent in Spanish and Zomi were also recruited as “Plant Captains.”
On launch day, CBL secured an exclusive in the Tulsa World and activated its campaign website and social media. Directing employees to the website resulted in hundreds of emails to City Hall on the first morning of the effort.
The outpouring of support resonated immediately. Mayor Bynum immediately backtracked, claiming he would never evict Navistar. Navistar’s legal department was ecstatic: In less than four hours, the Mayor backed off a threat he’d made in private for 10 months prior.
On Day 2 and 3 of the campaign, United Auto Workers leaders issued a statement supporting the company and its workers. The plant also hosted a media tour of the facility and a virtual press conference featuring company suppliers who worried that Navistar would be forced to relocate and what it would mean for their businesses.
Following the press conference and 5,041 individuals sending 75,615 emails to elected officials, the parties had the first productive negotiating session since the impasse began in July 2019.
Less than three weeks later, in early June, the parties announced a new agreement, providing certainty for Navistar, tax revenues for Tulsa, a win for the mayor, and preserving jobs for 1,600 employees and hundreds of other workers at vendors and suppliers.
The Tulsa World editorial board recapped the matter in an editorial: “The bus company hired a Chicago-based public relations firm that earned its money making sure that everyone knew the company’s side of story, especially how many people earned a living there and how much money Navistar/IC Bus had put into its Tulsa operations… Everybody wins, Bynum said. A Navistar International Corp. executive publicly praised the mayor’s leadership. We wanted to be cynical about the fast, happy solution to a difficult situation, but when the Tulsa World’s Rhett Morgan dug into it, we saw what looks like a pretty good deal for the people of Tulsa.”