Treating union communications seriously

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Unions face some unique communications challenges. That’s what this post is about — how unions can further advance their communication activities.

I believe that many unions have made a fundamental change for the better by adopting the organising model, placing empowerment of working people at the centre of the union’s activities and beliefs.

The old servicing model, in my view, represents a long-distant past of forced closed-shop and no-ticket-no-start — the union had the “supply” of required memberships, and the workers needed the service. There was no real need for professional communications because there was a captive audience. As a result, the kinds of communications that were produced were fairly narrowly directed at the small band of activists and delegates, many of whom were militant or who had a highly developed political awareness.

When the time the era of closed shops came to an end in the 1980s, unions just continued their old, “tried-and-true” communications methods. They continued to think that working people would just join, and that if collective bargaining outcomes were good, or if the organiser wandered into sites with their “magic industrial wand” to fix problems, then they’d grow. But it didn’t happen. Unions shrank — in part because they were only talking to themselves.

In the early 2000s, some unions realised that they had to change, and start encouraging working people to join. Growth teams were formed, coordinated by lead organisers. The goal was to ask working people to join — and to do so based on addressing workplace issues through the collective action of the workers themselves, rather than the magic wand approach of the “servicing model”.

There is a missing piece to the organising model puzzle — and that is communications.

In the rest of this post, I propose an integrated organising-communication model.

Nature and role of union communications

The diagram above shows the nature and role of union communications. It shows the four main communication challenges for unions: creating awareness of the union, encouraging non-members to join (some unions, like the AEU, allow “trial” membership), demonstrating the benefits of union membership, and finally, creating a “brand preference” and loyalty (to use marketing-speak).

Because union membership is “intangible” — that is, it is not like a tube of toothpaste, or a car, there are very different communications challenges when compared to normal, commercial challenges. The main difference is that whereas most commercial communications can move people from brand awareness to brand preference with packaging, promotions, pricing and distribution, union communications cannot.

Union membership is something that must be experienced to really know it; thus it is more difficult for potential members to imagine it and desire it. There are no knobs to turn or glossy touch-screens to touch or pictures to view. Union membership cannot be touched, tasted, smelled or tried on. Commercial communicators can let customers kick the tires, but to get the “benefit” of union membership, the member must first take action in the workplace as part of a collective.

Because of this, the union membership “experience” is very important. While recruitment and growth organising is important to create awareness or get people to sign up to a trial membership, it’s only when the member actually goes to their first rally, has the feeling of empowerment in the workplace, stands up to an unreasonable boss — takes action — that they can meaningfully understand what it is to be a union member. For the same reason, the “bad union experience” is also a strong influencer.  The experience of the union — good or bad — prompts word-of-mouth. An empowered, satisfied member is someone who will raise awareness of the union, encourage others to join, act as a physical demonstration of the benefits of membership and above all, build loyalty and “brand preference” for the union.

For unions, the after-joining communications must be just as central as the pre-joining communications. It is also where a lot of unions fall down. They think that once the union has signed someone up, their communication job is done — the just need to get on with “doing union stuff” and the member will contact them if they want help.

In my view, effective communications is essential across the entire union, in every aspect. In fact, I believe communications shouldn’t be seen as a subset of other “nice to have” activities, but should be integrated across what the union does. After all, the union delegates, staff, industrial officers and organisers are all communicating on behalf of the union. Everything they say and do represents the union — even if they don’t have responsibility for designing posters, writing media releases, or updating the website.

Integrated framework for union communications

This diagram shows an integrated framework for communicating about unions. What this framework tries to show is that the communications activities that traditionally are separated from the “coal face” of union organising should be connected — so that the union’s branding, recruitment materials, and messages to existing members are all aimed at building a union culture.

“Being union” right, the first time

This is all about the first union experience. This first experience is very important, as it will likely colour that person’s view of the union for a long, long time. For a lot of unions, workplace inductions are a crucial first-contact point between new staff and their union — so these unions will likely appreciate the importance of getting it right the first time. A good first contact will help create a positive attitude by the worker towards their union. This is why its important that unions think about their delegates and the training they receive. A good union experience builds brand preference and loyalty, and promotes word of mouth. We all know the “first impressions count” maxim; getting it wrong the first time can turn someone off for good.

“Being union” very right the second time

I’ve seen a lot of unions talk about a major problem they face, not being recruiting, but being retention. While the reasons for membership “churn” are diverse (moving jobs, leaving the industry, etc), a proportion comes down to having a bad experience. This “being union very right the second time” is about that recovery. Everyone makes mistakes, and not every workplace action or campaign will succeed, but all too often I’ve seen the union response — or lack thereof — leaving members feeling worse off than better. Unions that have a focus on recovery should retain more members than those that do not. I have seen this in practice — where a union made a mistake, fessed up to the member and fixed the error, and ended up with a reinforced relationship and a member with even greater loyalty than before. I’ve also seen the opposite, where a union made a mistake and the organiser simply stopped taking the beleaguered member’s calls! Needless to say, the member resigned.

Incidentally, the main areas that unions could look at improving in this regard are:

  1. Returning calls when promised;
  2. Receiving an explanation of how a problem happened;
  3. Being contacted when the problem is resolved; and
  4. Being told how long it will take to resolve a problem.

Which leads on to…

Managing and exceeding members’ expectations

A key problem with the servicing model is that it hopelessly raises expectations in members that the union organiser can magically solve problems. This has led to substantial dissatisfaction amongst members because their expectations are constantly let down. Because workplace issues are often fraught with high stakes and strong emotions, the servicing model constantly places union organisers and delegates in impossible situations.

Members are the sole judges of whether their expectations have been met, but union leaders and staff can help shape those expectations. The main way to do this is to not make promises that cannot be kept, and to be reliable. Reliability is important not just for helping imprint a union culture, but it also reduces the need for “recovery”.

For union communicators, this managing expectations is an important area. Regular communication, not just when an organiser stops by the site or workplace, is a potent means for managing expectations. Unions say all the time “the union is its members” — so to demonstrate that, it should be constantly talking with and interacting with the members. Proactive communications is the best way to nip problems in the bud.

Turning communications into a Line Function

This concerns taking responsibility for communications from the “communications officer” and making it something that is done by everyone who is close to members. While I don’t believe that organisers or industrial officers should need to know the technical details of design or have to write media releases — in fact, I think the exact opposite — I do believe that the importance of communications means it shouldn’t just be something done by one or two people. Organisers and industrial officers (not to mention the receptionist or call-centre staff) are at the front line of talking with members.

It doesn’t matter how slick and well designed your posters or website are, if when a member talks with an organiser they have a terrible experience. Effective communications is the essence, the core, of union business.

In practice, this not only means ensuring that all staff who have contact with members receive adequate training, but it also means having someone in the union with communications responsibility — a communications manager or director. This is my pitch — a lot of unions may have a communications officer or two, but unless there is someone with comms skills in the leadership team, at the same decision-making level as lead organisers, organising directors, industrial team directors and so on, then communication will be a secondary consideration in the strategy and planning of the union.

If the communications director is not centrally involved in helping define the union’s direction, then he or she is less likely be effective.

Managing the evidence

A union’s chief assets are its members — and the crown jewels are the activists and delegates who provide tangible evidence for members and non-members of the benefits of union membership. Because union membership is intangible, the actions and words of your activists are powerful clues for non-members.

If unmanaged, these clues can convey the wrong messages about your union, and can seriously undermine your organising efforts or campaign. If well managed, the clues teach non-members and members about the union and help build that union culture.

The question is not whether non-members will perceive tangible clues about your union; most will, most of the time. The question is whether they will perceive managed or unmanaged clues. Will non-members experience the union’s intended or unintended evidence.

Evidence is important because they are the tangible proof of the power of unionised workers. The can include the physical evidence, such as the raw numbers of members in a workplace, the presence of union communication materials (like union stickers, flags, posters), the attitude and actions of the employer, the physical condition of the union office or delegate office (if your union has one at the workplace) and so on. The evidence also includes those communication materials that are produced by and about the union: union videos, news articles, and organised word-of-mouth (testimonials). The final category of evidence is “price” — that is, the cost of membership, which sends a strong signal about the value of membership. I have heard a lot of members argue that union membership fees should be reduced to attract young members, casual or young members or wealthy members (in the case where membership cost a fixed percentage). However, membership fees sets expectations because it suggests to potential members clues about what they are buying.

Why worry about evidence? Because they help shape first impressions, build trust, help change the union’s image and help build union culture. For a non-member with little experience with the union, a well managed set of clues will help them develop a favourable view of the union.

Branding the union

The essential purpose of a brand is to distinguish one organisation’s offering from another. However, brands are much more than that — they are a promise, and people can form real, emotional relationships with brands. A brand is much more than your logo, colours, font and slogan. Your union’s brand is the sum of the perceptions of your union by members, non-members, the community, and your union’s staff.

For unions, the experience people have interacting with your union’s representatives are important because to a certain extent, those representatives embody your brand. The perception of your union’s brand and peoples’ experience with your union will powerfully shape their decisions when they interact with you.

For people without much experience with your union, the brand you project will have more influence. As the person gains more experience with your union, your union-controlled communications will have less impact compared to the actual experience.

Ensuring that your projected brand and the lived experience of your members and the non-members you’re interacting with are congruous is very important. If the experience and the controlled branding are complimentary, you will be reinforcing your brand.

Again, this goes back to my view that “everyone in the union is a communicator” — the union representatives (delegates, organisers) are the most powerful advocates for the union’s brand — more so than all the posters, leaflets, or stickers in the world. They are the living, breathing, vital embodiments of the union!

Communicating to existing members

Communicating to attract new members is merely an intermediate step for unions — after all, union power is only achieved and lived by the collective action of members. To do this, the union organisers and activists must nurture relationships with existing members, to build and strengthen their resolve. So much work is put towards signing up new members, yet a large number of unions struggle to hold on to those members once they join. This attrition is not entirely (or even mostly) the union’s fault, but a union that does not pay attention to retaining members will quickly come to grief.

I am a strong believer in the organising model because I believe that it empowers union members and builds union cultures in workplaces. An organising union turns a passive member who receives the wisdom and service of an organiser into a member who works collectively with others to solve their own problems and create a better workplace. Organised workplaces with active members are better places than 100% union shops that are passively “serviced” by a union staff member. The benefits for the member — self-respect, dignity, not to mention the improvements to the working environment — are manifold.

There are obvious benefits for the union as well. More members who are more engaged are more likely to remain members, promote membership to others, proactively address workplace issues without the need for an industrial officer or organiser to intervene.

In short: the union needs to continually communicate with, and organise, their members. This involves fostering, building and strengthening relationships between the members and the union officials.

Communicating internally

Despite all the rhetoric, the union’s officials cannot easily be separated from the union itself. The union’s organisers and other staff are the physical embodiment of the union. Union organising would struggle to happen without organisers.

That’s why I believe unions should take training of staff seriously. A union that places communication at its core also needs to communicate with its officials. This really starts to get into union management, where my experience is at the receiving end rather than the giving — so I’ll only briefly talk about the “vision thing”. Attracting, retaining and motivating good union officials is more than a pay cheque, leave and other benefits. Its about being a part of an organisation that fulfils the person’s emotional needs; a union with a clear, unambiguous goal, centred around a set of concrete values will address those emotional needs. The vision of the union’s leadership shapes the goals, articulates the values and helps capture the commitment of the union’s officials. All the corporate rubbish about mission statements and the rest of it is just guff in my view. But if the leadership cannot say in a sentence why the union does what it does, and where it’s going; and if the union officials can’t easily explain those things when asked, then the union will have its own retention, motivation and attraction problems.

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