What union members want from their union's communications

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In my line of work, I hear a lot of opinion expressed as fact. A common one is that “union members don’t want our communications to look too corporate”, or “our members want a lot of detail, not a short summary”, or “our slogan should be ‘screw the boss’ or something like that”. You get the idea.

Union organisers often have years of experience in talking with members, motivating them to action, getting them to listen. But they are not communications professionals.

Most of these experiences are based on “anecdotal” evidence. Useful, but sometimes misleading. For example, union activists and delegates are a very different audience to an inactive member. While many union members are progressive, and support or vote for Labor (or Democrat, or Lib Dems, or Greens, or Socialist Alliance), many are also “centrist”, a-political or even conservative. In the 2004 Australian general election, research revealed that around 40% of union members voted for John Howard! (This number was improved in 2007, where some unions’ research revealed a Labor vote of 60% or greater amongst their members.)

Nevertheless, my point is that unions often make communications decisions based on “gut feeling” or anecdotal, untested assumptions.

There has been some research into what union members, and workers generally, want from communications from their union. The research includes polling and focus groups, of members and non-members. I’ve seen some of these (unfortunately confidential) reports, produced by several unions, including my own and the ACTU. (I should also note that I have worked as an organiser at one of Australia’s largest unions, and in my view, union communications should support and compliment a union’s organising strategy.)

Without revealing all of the details, a clear motif appears from the results. Generally, across the board, union members and workers generally, want communications that are:

  • Positive, proactive, forward looking, friendly
  • Authentic – no cliches
  • Not adversarial or victimising (they don’t want to be made into victims or to have to fight their employer)
  • People focused (centred around members, colleagues, peers, the community they serve)
  • Professional and of a high standard

Positive, proactive, forward looking, friendly

Most union members are not attracted by communications (leaflets, posters, emails, phone calls) that are negative, reactive or backwards looking. They don’t like constantly having to “fight against” their employer or the government. They want their union to build, not tear down, and they prefer messages that represent a struggle restore rights as improving, not “clawing back” their working conditions.

Authentic – no cliches

Union members respond – like most people – negatively to cliches. The union movement has a large supply of labour-related cliches, most of which are not well-received by union members. Many non-members also respond poorly to the “militant” slogans used by many unions. This is not to say “you shouldn’t use slogans” – you should. Rather, your union’s slogans should summarise a positive, people-focused campaign goal.

What members and non-members want instead is communications that show that the union is made up of real people. They don’t like faceless bureaucrats, or “generic” images/text.

Not adversarial or victimising

Most workers like their jobs and want to feel proud of their work. They want to feel like they achieve something positive during their working day. While they can come into conflict with their employer from time to time, they don’t like to be constantly fighting. Unions that present a message that pits a group of workers in a (never-ending) fight against their boss will not be maximising their communications with a significant section of workers – especially non-members.

Similarly, workers don’t like to feel like victims. Victims are powerless, and connote emotions such as shame. Unions should be empowering members, and lifting them up. Presenting workers as victims goes counter to this.

People focused

Put your members at the centre of communications. Campaigns and communications need to about about them, not you. Whether it was Work Choices or the Employee Free Choice Act, unions need to emphasise improvements for workers, not threats to their unions.

Professional and of a high standard

Workers live in a world of high-standard communications, whether on television, the Internet or in print. There is an assumption that the communications (letters, leaflets, posters, ads) are well written, professionally designed and easy to understand and use. Unions have long been laggards in adopting modern design standards – this needs to end. (This goal is one of the reasons why I co-founded Creative Unions.) Unions can’t get away with having sub-standard, amateurish design for their communications. Many organisers I have dealt with say “members don’t like slick, corporate design”, or “members don’t want us spending heaps of money on design”.

Unfortunately, the evidence from research shows the opposite. Members do want good design. They want to know that their dues are going to a union that is professional in everything it does – industrial advice, campaigns, and – yes – design.

Unions need to be authentic – slick, corporate designs are probably not appropriate. But good design doesn’t need to be corporate. This is something that the environment movement has learned – you can have excellent design that is useable and intuitive, without it looking like a Coke advert (the World Wildlife Fund is a great example).

7 responses to “What union members want from their union's communications”

  1. Stephen Day Avatar

    Thanks for this great post Alex.

  2. Alexander White Avatar

    My pleasure. It's a bit generic, but the overall themes I think are fairly universal.

  3. Ted Avatar

    hahaha was the typo on the final title intentional? Gold!

    1. alexjpwhite Avatar

      Thanks Ted – how embarrassing (not a typo). Now corrected.

  4. mnnurses Avatar

    Alex I really, really enjoy all your posts, E-books, etc. As a PR/Social Media guy working here in the USA for a nurses' Union, I'm thrilled to follow someone who "gets it" in terms of how we should be communicating with our members and also how to use the tools of Social Media/etc. effectively.

    This is your best and most helpful post yet! I'm going to share with all our staff here – especially organizers and Communications people.

    Also if you're interested here's a video I put together on how our Union used Social Media quite well in our contract campaign this summer. It's right up your alley! Link:

  5. Don Avatar

    Excellent post- thanks for writing it! It reminds me of a case study on the reputation of a union local here in Ontario, Canada. The reputation of the union’s reputation and public support went down because the communication was harsh and hateful.


    1. Don Avatar

      The union’s reputation and public support went down because the communication was harsh and hateful.* (I apologize for the typo in the previous post!)

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