Communication is king

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I’ve got most of my experience in communications, marketing, graphic design and campaigning from the union movement, book-ended by political and non-profit experience. What I’ve seen across all three of these sectors is that communications, public relations, graphic design, and marketing are treated as interchangeable.

They’re not. Marketing, PR, communications, graphic design are all different things. This conflation happens everywhere, whether in the non-profit sector, unions or business.

Unfortunately, if you keep confusing communications, graphic design and marketing, you’re likely to waste all your campaigning efforts. For unions, with limited resources and high stakes, the negative effects may be very high.

I’ve run campaigns of all sizes, from large campaigns with budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars for TV ads, to small shoe-string campaigns run on next to nothing, and everything in between. I’ve had to start from scratch with no lists or resources, to coming into large multifaceted campaigns half-way through.

What I’ve learned is that communication is key to success.

1. Communication is king

The most important question you can ask is “what do you want your audience to hear?” Everything else needs to be in service to answering that question. Whether you’re organising large direct mail, house visits, radio ads, creative banners and placards, designing new logos, writing emails or web pages.

Your union campaigns and organising will never be effective if you don’t know what you want your audience to hear. Put communication first.

2. Don’t think of an elephant

If you don’t want someone to think of something, don’t use ever mention that thing. Many campaigns make the mistake of promoting the thing they don’t want you to think about!

There are scores of examples of this — and George Lakoff coined the term — but a good recent example is the “carbon tax”. If you want people to think positively of the Clean Energy Future policy, don’t talk about the “carbon tax”. (The Greens party of a chief offender in this regard.)

For unions, a big challenge comes in appealing to a majority of workers, but being caught in the language and visuals of outdated radicalism. Too many unions use tired, irrelevant slogans and visuals that talk exclusively to a minority. Most members aren’t interested in workplace conflict or “bashing the boss”. Unions talk about good faith bargaining and negotiations, yet are stuck with images of red fists, red flags, and militant slogans.

The result is that unions reinforce perceptions that they are old-fashioned and outdated — and that they’re all about conflict.

Effective, successful unions are using more powerful concepts, like respect and dignity. (See here and here.)

3. Everything matters

I love to cook, and in all my years cooking, I’ve noticed that it’s very important to have all of the ingredients. Sure, sometimes you can get away with not having this or that ingredient, or substituting one for another… but having the right combination of ingredients helps creates a perfect dish.

Just like effective communications. I’ve seen a lot of union campaigns have superb organising but mediocre communications. Hundreds of unions have spent tens of thousands of dollars on professionally designed and printed material, but are still relying on a website designed in the 1990s.

I’ve seen political campaigns with a great candidate and committed volunteers let down by a half-hearted postal vote effort, or hamstrung by underdone fundraising.

The fact is that really successful campaigns are ones that work on every element — the organising, the print and online communications, the messaging, great graphic design and considered copywriting, backed up by fantastic logistics. Mediocre campaigns forget about one or more elements.

4. Be original, but not too original

Unions don’t need to reinvent the wheel — it’s doing a good job after all — but they should look like they do.

What I mean by this is that there are lots of great ideas out there, many of them (amazingly) not originating from the union movement. Unions can take a lot from the non-profit sector and from the commercial sector for communications techniques, standards and ideas. Then it just needs to be re-imagined.

A good case in point is photos and images. While most unions have a good library of photos of members and their own rallies, I see an equal number of unions use dodgy “stock images” (unions are obviously not the only offender here). Whether its a stock image of a construction worker used in a work cover leaflet, or a photo of a group of hands clasped to represent solidarity or cooperation, the point is the same: you’re homogenising your union.

Members can sense the inauthenticity.

5. A logo isn’t a marketing plan, a poster isn’t a communications plan

While I like flying by the seat of my pants as much as the next person, it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to do and achieve — and of course, what you want to communicate. The goal, the objectives, comes first — the creative is drawn from that.

Often, union staff respond to events by jumping the important steps between determining the objective and blasting the members with the message. An employer announced redundancies and the first response is to send an email or print up flyers. Wrong!

If you haven’t done the legwork, you’re wasting your time and you’re letting down your members.

The corollary to this is that when you do get around to designing that logo or laying out that poster, you should get a professional graphic designer to do it.

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