Debunking nine union communications myths

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I’ve spoken with scores of unions around Australia and internationally about effective communications and campaigns. What I constantly hear is that it is rare for unions to have a communications plan. There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from “we’ve got no budget”, “we’re doing OK without a written plan”, “we don’t have time” or “we’re overwhelmed with other work”. (There are some unions however, which are doing great work and have well developed plans which are being implemented.)

Underlying a lot of thinking the union movement are some myths, which impede effective communications planning. By confronting these myths, hopefully I can help unions overcome some hurdles and create practical communications plans.

Myth 1: My target audience is older, therefore online communications won’t work

The fastest growing demographic adopting social media and smart phones is the Boomers (over 50s). Even retirees are jumping on social media. However, the key point is that the average age of Internet users is older than you think. While I strongly argue that you should invest in your website and email before jumping into social media, unions definitely should not neglect social media communications.

Myth 2: A mobile website isn’t necessary for unions>

A major topic of my recent presentation to New Zealand unions was the rise of mobile for digital campaigning and communications and the growing prevalence of multi-screening. The fact is that from 2013 onwards, if your union website and campaign sites aren’t mobile friendly (i.e. responsive site or a separate mobile site), then you are effectively crippling your online campaigns. Mobile-friendly campaigning is very important, because the way that people consume media is changing. If you’re developing new union websites, make sure it is mobile and tablet friendly. Responsive is best under most circumstances (there will be a few limited instances where you may want a separate mobile website).

Myth 3: Email communications is no longer effective

With all the focus on Facebook or Twitter, it’s easy to forget that email campaigning is still the most effective mass communication tool. In fact, I argue that it is the “killer app” for communications. Effective email communications, using proper software, lets you target, segment, and test calls to action.

Myth 4: We have a logo therefore the union has a brand

A logo is part of your union’s brand, but it is not all there is. Unions should care about brands a lot more than they do. Ultimately, a brand is a promise. What is you’re union’s promise to members and non-members; it should simply and concretely communicate your core values and what your union does. I’ve written about the three neuroscientific laws of branding for unions here.

Myth 5: We can build our website on the cheap

Your website is much more important than you think. In addition to being the hub of your union’s online communications and campaigns, your website may be first place a potential member goes to find out how to join your union or a member to get information on a campaign. Investing in a decent website is now essential for unions. Building a “cheapie” website is no longer good enough. How much should a website cost? Depending on how integrated you want it with your membership database or CRM, you’re looking at over $50,000 and probably even over $100,000. A main website done properly should allow you to deploy microsites, which should save you money in the long-run. A good website would include decent search engine optimisation, A/B testing and ability to create landing pages.

Myth 6: We should get instant results

Good communications will not cause changes immediately. Awareness, engagement, membership growth, all happens over time. Most people consume messages in an impressionistic way. This is why consistency and repetition, and sustained contact, is important for good messaging. Your communications plans should look at least a year ahead. It takes time to build interest, trust and credibility.

Myth 7: Messages need to be changed often, otherwise members get bored

This is one of the most pernicious and wrong-headed myths I’ve seen in the union movement. All the research shows that consistency and repetition are essential, and over months and years, not weeks and months. Constantly changing your campaign message or “slogan” because you’re worried about boring your members or your audience simply wastes all the investments you’ve made.

Myth 8: Communications is separate from organising

Most unions have communications staff, whether they call them a comms officer or a media officer. However, I see a lot of unions where the communications staff and role are structurally and practically separated from the role of the union’s organisers. Effective communications supports the core union business of organising. Communications officers should be embedded with organising teams, either physically located with organising teams, or functionally through regular participation in organising team meetings and activities.

Myth 9: Digital communications is different from traditional communications

The decline of traditional media is the business challenge for every newspaper, radio and TV station in the world. More and more people are changing the media consumption to digital mediums. Unions shouldn’t see digital and traditional communications as different any longer. The same content must be communicated through all available channels. While digital media requires some specialist skills, in my view there should be integration of digital and traditional communications.

Communications is about increasing engagement, through increasing awareness amongst your target audience through consistent messages that are repeated constantly. Effective communications requires an investment in time, creativity, resources and energy. Increasingly, digital communications is taking the place of traditional communication channels like leaflets, posters, letters and the mainstream media.

What do you think? Are there any myths you think I’ve missed?

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