The secret to strong messaging for your union: focus

April 30, 2013

Because unions are democratic organisations, accountable to members and with a leadership elected by members, as organisations they face considerable challenges in messaging. Add to this the fact that many unions have a diverse membership covering distinct and structurally different industries.

It’s no wonder that many unions struggle to develop strong, consistent messaging.

The key to messaging is not what you say, it’s what your audience hears. In the mind of your audience, your members and potential members, you get to say one thing. One. That one thing matters because the mind is where your message lives. Not in your union office, or your union’s website, or in your journal or brochures.

Because unions are often such multifaceted organisations with such an array of members, sites, geographies, it’s easy to say lots of things.

For example, I see lots of unions with lists of “Why to join the union” — which invariably list five or ten or more things. They say things like: “You earn more”, ” you get more holidays”, “you’re more likely to get equal pay”, “you get more parental leave”, “you’re less likely to be discriminated against” and so on.

Unfortunately, in our over-communicated modern societies, you don’t get to say five or ten things. You don’t even get to say three. If you try to communicate three things you are saying nothing.

In fact, by saying three things you may be simply confusing your audience, with the net effect of your messaging being negative!

The secret to strong messaging for unions is to just say one thing.

Big business has known this for years. And increasingly, progressive organisations and campaigns are learning. Volvo is the “safe” brand of car. Coke is “the Real Thing”, Woolworths are the “freshfood people”. Obama wants to take America “Forward“. Amnesty International is “human rights”.

The key thing to realise is that your members and supporters don’t really care what you want to be. They perceive you how they want.

They don’t do this to be difficult, but because modern people are bombarded with communications and advertisements. The average person sees as many as 5000 marketing messages each day. Without spending a great deal of time thinking about a union campaign or the union itself, most people are impressionistic. We all use mental short-cuts to make sense of the world.

It’s very tempting to try to cover every base of why someone might want to join your union or sign up to your campaign, but you can’t be all things to all people. In the long run however, your message will simply become fuzzy, indistinct and will be lost in the white-noise of modern life.

Positioning is the “art of sacrifice“. It’s about cutting away the less important elements of what you stand for, what you’re trying to achieve or to convey.

It’s about working hard to uncover the one thing you should say.

Of course, unions do many things and are multi-faceted organisations. Most unions have many different kinds of member and different kinds of supporter. Some will be spread over industries, states, generations or ethnicities and languages.

Do you think Obama wasn’t trying to build a broad based alliance to get to 270 electoral college votes? Yet he still repeated the slogan ‘Forward” at every stump speech in every state. The “Forward” position allowed him to speak in a powerful, focused way using targeted secondary language. “Forward on women’s rights”. “Forward on immigration”. “Forward on health care”. And so on. The strong positioning tied multiple issues together so that anyone who only caught one or a few of his messages could still identify the clear message at the heart of his campaign.

So, how can unions use positioning and focus to deliver strong, powerful messages?

1. Appeal to hearts and minds

Your position and core message must have both an emotional and rational side. Almost everyone is powerfully influenced by emotions. (If you don’t agree, please go and read George Lakoff’s book immediately.) People are driven by strong appeals to both heart and mind. Volvo’s appeal of “safety” clearly resonates emotionally and rationally.

When I worked for the NTEU, my colleague and I worked on the core message of the state-wide collective bargaining campaign. While the national union decided on a slogan of “restore, renew, rebuild”, in Victoria we decided that our key message would be “respect at work”. This came out of the insight that most university employees (academics and professional staff) liked working at university, but didn’t feel that the management appreciated the work they did and rarely showed an courtesy or recognition. The “Respect at Work” also helped us unite academics and professional staff who don’t always identify themselves as workers.

While “respect” is not a unique message for unions, it is a powerful one, because it has both an emotional appeal and a can be tied to specific rational appeals.

2. Make credible claims

Your core message must be believable and credible. Credibility is in fact very important indeed:

Credibility is broadly defined as the believability of an entity’s intentions at a particular time and is posited to have two main components; trustworthiness and expertise. Thus, brand credibility is defined as the believability of the product information contained in a brand, which requires that consumers perceive that the brand have the ability (i.e., expertise) and willingness (i.e., trustworthiness) to continuously deliver what has been promised (in fact, brands can function as signals since—if and when they do not deliver what is promised—their brand equity will erode). Both the expertise and trustworthiness of a brand reflect the cumulative impacts of associated past and present marketing strategies and activities.

When a union makes a functional claim about, for example, about wage rises or job security, it must be credible to be believed. While unions are broadly perceived as “experts” in workplace relations, this is based on their established credibility. What it boils down to is “don’t over promise” and “deliver on your promises”.

Credibility also links to consistency. Consistency in the delivery of your union’s servicing and organising, and in the messages you use. One of the reasons why focus is so important is because your officials and delegates must be able to articulate the focused, clear, concrete message when talking to members. If different officials say different things to members, you will run into trouble.

Because unions provide intangible goods (organising and servicing), it is essential that the union officials and delegates who have direct interaction with members, understand the importance of credibility.

3. Be relevant

Modern communications techniques allow unions to send targeted messages to segments of their membership. Email campaign software now means you no longer need to blast all of your members with the same generic email, but can tailor them.

The reason you would want to do this is because relevance is important for powerful, effective messaging. Especially when there are competing messages in a workplace (e.g. counter-argumentation from an employer during a collective bargaining/contract campaign), increasing the relevance of your message works to remove from consideration those counter-arguments.

The stronger, simpler and more tailored a message is to its audience, the harder it is for competing messages to gain traction in the mind of your members. A good example is to recall the “Your Rights At Work” campaign message. The Your Rights At Work core message dominated the debate so completely by 2007 (after three years of work) that even the Howard Government, despite spending $100s of millions, was only able to talk about workplace laws in terms of “rights at work”. The restoration of the “no disadvantage test” in the dying days of the Howard years is testament to how relevance can remove other concepts from consideration.

4. Keep it simple

Complexity is the bane of messaging. While issues and disputes may be complex, the message your union is trying to convey should never be. Of course, a campaign and a key message should never just be a slogan.

Unions have an unfortunate habit of using jargon and acronyms. This is part of the “curse of knowledge” — where the union officials have an unconscious expectation that others know what they know. To the union official, the jargon and acronyms make perfect sense.

The more complex an issue is communicated, the more difficulty you will have in getting your message to stick in the mind of your audience.

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