Five mistakes unions make in effective communications copywriting

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I am a strong advocate of high-quality, professional communications for unions — which means getting professional writers and designers. This belief was the basis of my motivation to co-found Creative Unions.

A lot of unions, particularly the smaller ones, think that they can leave the writing up to industrial officers and the design up to organisers. Even large unions with communications teams often struggle with the organisational inertia of organisers and industrial officers believing they can write or design to a professional standard.

The truth is that you can damage your campaigning message and reduce your organising effectiveness if you leave the copywriting and design to your organisers and industrial officers. There’s a reason why the private sector has entire teams of creatives, writers and copywriters to develop advertising, direct mail and email, websites and so on. Because it’s a specialised skill. It’s important. And good copywriting works.

Of course, to be effective, your union organisers and industrial officers should be involved in developing campaign messages, providing technical advice on the copy if it relates to workplace laws, collective agreements or awards. Similarly, the campaign communications should match the organising message that your organising teams are taking to the workplace.

(Aside: if you’re only coming across the term “copy” for the first time, don’t worry. “Copy” simply means the written material in a book, leaflet, poster, news article or any other printed or online material.)

But I’ve seen too many unions make the mistake of having wide structural separation between communications functions and organising/industrial functions. The result has been dreary uncreative posters, and dull jargon-filled leaflets or emails. In short, campaign literature that no member would ever want to read.

So, whatever you do, please don’t make the five mistakes here.

1. Thinking that members care about “the union” and what the union is doing

No, they don’t. They care about the impact on them and other members. When I was an organiser, I always told members that “they are the union”. A union is its members, so why do so many union communications present the union as something separate and distinct.

Members don’t care about the union as an organisation (except, perhaps, those few members involved in the week to week governance of the union) — they care about their rights at work, their entitlements, their safety, their jobs. In short, they care about members: themselves and people like them.

The goal of union copywriting should be to place members front and centre — to demonstrate that they are the union. The key messaging success of the Rights at Work campaign was focusing on the needs and desires of working people, rather than the assault on unions as institutions.

It’s great that your union has been around for 100 years, or that it was formed from amalgamating this or that union, but for the most part, members only truly care about what the union can do for them, and how the union can make their lives easier or better (cue “Unions: Working for a Better Life“). This is where the organising message then comes in — “the union” is the members, and its only through solidarity and action of members that “the union” can achieve any of this.

2. Using the same copy everywhere

Your union’s campaign copy should change depending on where you’re using it. This is mostly about ensuring that the text you’re using is appropriate for the medium. For example, a poster would have different copy than a leaflet. A newsletter article should have different copy to an email, and so on. There is a lot of research about how people read material online, compared to printed — which boils down to “make online copy shorter, and break it up into short paragraphs”.

What I’ve seen very often however is the same text from a printed article being used for an online web page. Or the same text from a leaflet used for an email.

If you’re doing this, you’re compromising your message. This is because people read material from different mediums in completely different ways.

A rule of thumb to use is that the larger the medium (physically), the fewer words you should use; similarly, the more “instant” the medium, the fewer words. So, a poster would have fewer words than a leaflet. A billboard would have fewer words than a poster. A web page would have fewer words than a printed letter. An email would have fewer words than a web page. And of course, Twitter has fewer words than an email or Facebook.

It’s probably easier to write the long-form version first, then cut down words as you change medium, but you can enforce a discipline on yourself by starting with the short version — this will help with distilling your message and cutting out unnecessary words and sentences.

3. Using the same copy for everyone

Members respond differently based on their employer, their location, their job status and permanency. Non-members respond differently to members. The general public responds differently to people “in the industry”.

I’ve seen unions use the same leaflet for the public as they do for members or non-members t0 explain a campaign. When I worked at the NTEU, during industrial action campaigns I wrote different leaflets for students, non-members and members. Students have very different concerns over striking lecturers and closed libraries, than the lecturers and librarians do.

This is because one audience has a different familiarity and experience with your union than non-members or the public, who will have little or no experience at all. Different groups will have different concerns, and your message for one may alienate the other.

Clearly the messages to different audiences must be tailored. Although we live in a world where we can target our messages and “narrow-cast”, you should be aware that everything you put in the public domain (or even send privately to members) can be read and interpreted by someone it was not intended for — so keep that in mind.

4. Trying to sound “smart”

I’ve seen this offence committed mostly by industrial officers or organisers who want to be industrial officers. The writing is filled with technical, industrial jargon. It is verbose and overly long. In short, it is unreadable for most people.

The language and tone of your copy should be pitched to the people who are likely to see it. And the reality is that you should pitch it at the lower end of literacy.

I’ve heard — particularly from white-collar unions — that we “shouldn’t dumb it down”. This attitude is wrong. Keeping things simple and understandable is not “dumbing down”. It is making it accessible to everyone. Even highly literate members are unlikely to be industrial experts. Most people don’t want to have to break out a thesaurus to make sense of your campaign email or leaflet. (Of course, be careful not to cross the line into patronising.)

The tone and language of your communication depends on your audience. Think about their needs, not your need to sound “technical”.

5. Thinking it’s easy to write

This is my pitch for unions to employ professionals. Writing copy of any kind — whether for a union campaign or anything else — is a specialised skill. It relies on a whole range of understanding and experience, from persuasion, psychology, and creativity.

It is not something that organisers and industrial officers should do — just like you’d get in a specialist accountant, lawyer or other professional, so too should your union get in a professional for communications.

The problem is that everyone has an opinion about writing, messaging and design. Just because you can write, doesn’t mean you can write copy.

Unions really need to invest in this area — whether employed directly or hired through a creative agency. It is something that big business learned long ago.

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