Top social media tips for unions – UNI Global Union Communications talk

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These are my notes for the Skype presentation that I gave this evening to the UNI Global Union Communicator Conference. I was asked to talk about “top social media tips for unions”.

Top Social Media Tips for Unions

Basis of my views are the Creative Unions manifesto.

For too long, unions have been slow in taking up new techniques, new campaigning tools and improved standards. Creative Unions sees its role as promoting best practice for communications, campaigning and design – especially design. Atosha and I set up Creative Unions in 2009 to find international benchmarks in the union movement, not just in Australia. If you haven’t seen our site, check

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for unions to reach a new audience and communicate with existing members. The rules of social media – conversation, participation, openness and community – fit well with union values. We must use this tool wisely to be effective.

At the NTEU, we face the same challenges that many unions face in adopting best practice for social media. I don’t claim to do everything perfectly. Facing and overcoming cultural barriers, inertia and making sure everyone understands and agrees with what we want to achieve with social media.

Most of my tips are principles that are general in nature. I have many more specific tips for unions to use social media and online campaigning on my blog.

My top tips

1. Social media is about conversation

Tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and a few others present excellent opportunities to engage members and potential members in conversations.

The days of one-way, broadcast communication from unions is over. If members and non-members can’t talk with you in the forums of your choice, they will talk about you in other forums.

The conversation is not just between you and the member. Two, three or even scores of people can be involved in a social-media conversation on Facebook or a blog. This can be the most important, powerful part of social media.

If you have a union Facebook or Twitter account, don’t just wait for members to leave comments or send you messages. You need to initiate conversations as well as respond.

2. Ownership and relationships

Social media helps people build attachment to brands – and unions should not be an exception. By being open and transparent, and living up to our values of “member-centric” organisations, smart unions should increase the commitment of members and reduce barriers for non-members to join.

We can no longer run closed systems where the Secretary approves everything. We need to empower our delegates and members by giving them a union voice in social media. We should encourage members and staff to blog, to tweet and to “brand” their social media presence with the union’s logo or campaign design.

3. Make your social media purpose driven

A big – and sometimes legitimate – criticism of non-profit social media is that it promotes slacktivism or clicktivism. As unionists we don’t want people to think that just by following us on Twitter or liking us on Facebook that our members activism is over.

Engaging with the union is the first step towards the member becoming more active.

Your social media plan should link with your broader communications and organising strategy. How does your social media link with your online campaigning? Your bulk-email campaigns? Your on-the-ground organising? Your media management and PR?

How can your union’s use of social media encourage people to become more active within the union? As organisers, we use commitments to develop activists. Social media can help build commitment because behaviour leads attitude. Facebook and Twitter engagement is a form of public, social commitment to a cause or activity.

Make sure that you have a plan beyond just “we need a Facebook page”. What do you want union members to actually do? What real world follow up do we have planned? Have we, as union communicators, sat down with organisers?

4. Track your progress, set goals

This links with the previous point – how do we know if what we are doing is working? Set your goals. How many followers, conversations, comments, clicks, likes do you want. We need to set these goals because most unions have scarce resources. Metrics and goals let you see how well your social media campaigns are working. Are people actually liking or sharing your content? Are people clicking on your Facebook links to your union’s campaign website?

5. Don’t forget the basics

Facebook and Twitter both provide free guides for non-profits to use their platforms. There are also great resources out there for non-profits. Just because it doesn’t say “union” doesn’t mean that we can’t use those techniques.


There is no silver bullet

Just having a Facebook or Twitter account doesn’t make an online campaign. There are lots of other things that shouldn’t be neglected. For online campaigning, in my view bulk email is still the most important tool available for unions.

Don’t expect millions of followers overnight

It takes time to build trust, earn followers and get them engaged. Here’s a few ideas for getting more Facebook followers:

  1. Ask your members to like your Page.
  2. Make your content interesting and relevant so people will want to get it.
  3. Reach out to like-minded groups and interact on their pages.
  4. Promote your page on your website, emails, print media, etc.

It takes time and resources to do properly

It’s free to set up a social media account, but you need to devote resources to doing it properly. This takes the time of a union official or volunteer – to check comments, respond, engage and updates. Producing content takes time. Videos, photos and news. Tweeting your media releases won’t cut it.

There needs to be a purpose

Don’t turn your activists into clicktivists. Make sure that your social media presence has a purpose. How does it ensure that it achieves your union’s campaign and organising goals? Don’t do social media “just because”. Have a reason, set goals and measure your success.

Go where the members are (aka, why Facebook)

Most people use Facebook in the West – there are exceptions in different countries, such as South America, Russia and parts of Asia. But Facebook is the juggernaut, despite slowing growth. There is no point in insisting that your members only engage with their union on places like UnionBook. Most members and non-members use social media to interact with friends and family. The union needs to engage with members where they are, even if Facebook is a business and not union friendly. There are web services that can scan your membership list and tell you which social networks they are on – so use them.

Design is important – even in social media

All your union’s communications should be professionally designed – not just your website and print, but also social media. Your Twitter backgrounds and your Facebook page pictures should be professionally designed and consistent with your other online and off-line communications.

Everything is archived and public

Don’t assume that your social media activities are private – even if you’ve got privacy settings set up. Be aware that employers and other opponents will be scrutinising your online activities as well as everything your union does and says.

Whether it is a misinterpreted comment on your blog, or a “tweet” taken out of context, it is highly likely that something will go wrong.

The best way to handle these mishaps is, like all crisis management, to be honest, acknowledge the mistake, explain how you are remedying the problem, and move on. Ensure your response is timely – within 24 hours is a good benchmark. If possible, break the story on your own terms rather than wait to be called out on it.