Key messaging advice for unions

January 20, 2010

Every union communication challenge is unique – the circumstances, membership, employer, and so on are different every time. Having a framework to assist in messaging for diverse campaigns can make each campaign easier, and can help union communications anticipate what the employer (or opponent) may say. (George Lakoff called this “framing”.)

The messaging quadrant

The essence of effective union key messaging is based around four key ideas:

  1. Your key message: a narrative for your campaign, explaining what you are doing, why you are doing it, and why your members (and workers in general) should support the campaign.
  2. Your message about them: Your union needs to frame the employer and anything they say – this is your “counter-punch”, supporting your key message.
  3. Their spin on your message: The employer will try to re-butt your key message. You should inoculate your members against criticisms of the union by the employer or opponent.
  4. Their message: An employer in a dispute will have their own message in a dispute or campaign. Your union message needs to re-state what they are saying in your own words, and expose hypocrisy and double standards.

A good union campaign messaging will continually push the union’s key messaging, and rely on the other three pillars to respond to whatever the employer says.It is very easy to respond to attacks from an employer if you’ve already thought about what they will say and how you will react. If you’ve already pigeon-holed the employer, then you’re forcing them into a space that is good for you and bad for them.

An essential part of this is consistency. Once your campaign team has chosen your key message, be very careful about changing it. Switching messages can expose you to ridicule by the employer as a “flip flopper”. The members and others listening can get confused as to what the union is doing and saying.

Don’t be afraid of going negative. The employer does. They attack the union, they attack union members, they attack the rights workers have to take industrial action. They key is to turn their negativity against them, and to turn your attacks into positives. Your negative message is your “counter-punch” – finding their hypocrisy and exposing it to ridicule.

Framing your key messages

  1. Speak the truth: Whatever your key message, it should be true. And true in the strongest sense. Don’t try to get away with half-truths, grey areas or white-lies. Don’t fudge things or tell lies by omission. This will be found out by the employer, and used to attack and undermine your union.
  2. Take the high moral ground: You should make sure that you communicate your union’s integrity on the campaign issue. The union (and its campaign) should be selfless – it is “doing the right thing”.
  3. Offence, not defence: The union’s communications should be pro-active, rather than waiting for the employer to do or say something. Pre-empt their attacks, and be prepared to respond to an attack by the employer.
  4. Appeal to people’s better nature: Your main key message needs to be positive and optimistic. Link your message into the values of your members or the target audience. Look beyond union cliches (like “solidarity”, talk about “responsibility”).

[box type=”info”]You can get “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, by George Lakoff here.[/box]


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