Campaigning & organising in the time of coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything, and campaigning & organising is no different.

Every union is rapidly working on new tools and techniques to adapt to the public health restrictions caused by coronavirus. In this newsletter, I’m going through some headline “best practice” for your union’s campaigning and organising during this crisis.

For years, I’ve been writing (on my blog and recently my newsletter) that unions need to fundamentally reimagine the kind of organisations we are. Historically, unions were data organisations (we had a monopoly on the “going rate” — which gave us an unparalleled advantage over bosses, and which aided our organising efforts with workers). The coronavirus crisis represents a inflection point — unions are being forced by circumstance to adopt modern digital and productivity tools. As a movement, now is the time to stop swimming against the tide.

And if you haven’t downloaded it yet, my complete Guide to Online Campaigning for unions is available for free here.

Unions, like almost every other organisations, face major challenges to how we operate due to the lockdowns and restrictions caused by coronavirus.

A lot of campaigning and organising organisations, unions included, now have to adapt quickly to a working-from-home environment, where online and remote tools — instead of face-to-face — are the primary options available.

This article is mainly concerned with the technical, tactical parts of remote/online organising and campaigning.

Unions are also dealing with the industrial, health & safety and social impacts of the crisis: for example job losses, stand-downs, lack of protective equipment, WHS issues, Award changes and much more. Amidst responding to these daily issues, unions must also continue to recruit new members, engage and organise existing members in an entirely new environment.

Campaign & organising tactics

The diagram below is an update of the model from my Online Campaigning for Unions guide.

The updated campaigning funnel for unions to move supporters from online to offline action, in the age of coronavirus

For organising – the “endorsing” stage is the membership signup point. The stage immediately before joining is “following” (the Observers and Followers are potential members). As the member becomes more active, they move down to Contributing (delegates) and Owning (committee of management member).

The Old (pre-coronavirus) conceptualisation was to move from online organising for “pre-joining” actions, and more off-line (e.g. face-to-face, mass meetings, rallies, etc) actions for members and activists.

The New scheme focuses more on broadcast vs conversational communications. For the time-being, almost all communications and engagement will need to be remote and online.

Field organisers/campaigners

Unions have some of the best trained organisers and campaigners, so while there is a lockdown, these staff could be redeployed from “field” (i.e. visiting workplaces) to doing their outreach via phone and video contacts to delegates, activists and members. Most organisers would already be doing this, but for dedicated “field” organisers and campaigners, it will mean going to basically 100% remote contact. Later in this newsletter, I discuss how remote video tools can be (and are being) used.

Virtual mass-meetings

The latest generation of video conferencing tools (such as Zoom or Webex) present significant opportunity for mass, online meetings of members and activists. Online live video broadcasting (e.g. Facebook Live) can also allow hundreds or even 1000s of people to watch and engage with online activities.

Recently Victorian Trades Hall led a nationally coordinated union movement “virtual picket line” using Zoom and Facebook Live (see here and here). This online action remotely engaged members and supporters to take real-world actions like calling their local MP to support a wages subsidy (a major demand for the Australian union movement on the Federal Govt). This style of “online-picket”, where activists and members are engaged and mobilised online via video tools, is also being used by unions like United Workers Union to mobilise casual hospitality workers who were excluded from coverage of the wages subsidy.

This type of virtual engagement has been undertaken for a long time (by years, pre-dating the current crisis) by mega-churches in the US. In addition to holding their “mass worship” sessions via Zoom, they are also focusing on engaging their “small groups” via video tools. Many of these megachurches also have regular TV and radio shows that they broadcast via digital radio channels or publish as podcasts.

Events management companies were also pioneers for online events, but they have rapidly transitioned to online mass events such as large Expos (see here for an example of how Salesforce changed its World Expo into a virtual event, including live-streamed sessions, pre-recorded sessions and more… this Salesforce Expo had around 1 million views across its various channels, including 80,000 through their main live video channel).

The question facing the corporate sector is how they can use virtual events to drive sales. (Remember: the reason these companies hold these expos is to sell their products & services.) The evidence at this early stage is that “digital native” businesses are able to continue to drive sales, whereas more traditional businesses that haven’t adopted new digital tools and don’t have a lot of online experience are struggling.

The other obvious benefit of virtual meetings is that most of the video conference tools can integrate with major email platforms. With a modern CRM, a union can use participating in these virtual meetings to help identify future members or leaders.

Remote video for recruitment

As noted, the corporate sector uses video conferencing tools to sell their services and products. This can serve as a template for unions to recruit.

Prior to the crisis, many businesses used webinars as a primary tool to qualify new leads. Basically — they invite potential customers to participate in a free webinar about a “business problem” and then pitch their service as the solution.

In a similar vein, unions could use webinars or virtual mass-meetings that are held primarily to non-members. A webinar-specific tool like Crowdcast would then let you follow up participants with a join message, advertising and a phone-call. Obviously, a modern CRM is essential to do this effectively.

One-on-one engagement

1:1 engagement is the gold standard for organising, and what I am seeing with a lot of unions is that this can still continue via a video-call or standard telephone call.

Despite the innovations from digital tools, it is still hard to scale 1:1 organising and contact. This remains one of the biggest barriers for the union recruitment model — most members are signed up by organisers or delegates in a face-to-face interaction.

Later in this email, I go through a range of remote and online video and communications tools that organisers can use for 1:1 conversations.

Cold SMS

Cold SMS is when you send an SMS to a contact in your database that you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with. An obvious example would be a potential member who provided their mobile number after signing a petition, but it could also include previous members that have not heard from your union in a while, or a supporter of a campaign you are running that is not eligible for membership.

Unions have been using SMS broadcasts for years, but there is increasing evidence that cold SMS broadcasts are effective communications tools that can cut through the noise of digital comms. For cold SMS, the “best practice” advice from research groups like the Analyst Institute, continue to show that broadcasts are better than “back and forth” SMS (like peer-to-peer tools such as Hustle, RumbleUp or Callhub). To be effective though, cold broadcast SMS should be “fact-based” or informational, rather than questioning or trying to persuade.

The commercial sector is also using SMS for sales, and there are an increasing number of e-commerce tools available that would be worth unions taking a look at specifically for recruitment. For example, you could use an SMS tool like Save My Sales for automating an SMS follow up for people who visit your join page but don’t join. The conversion and engagement stats the commercial sector are seeing for cold, automated, non-conversational SMS are similar to what some unions report for warm, conversational SMS.

Warm SMS (including “peer to peer”)

More and more unions are using SMS-bank (or peer-to-peer) tools, that allow organisers or volunteers to send and respond to a large number of SMS conversations simultaneously. Evidence for campaigning over the past few years shows that these tools are effective only when there is already a pre-existing

There is also evidence that using images (MMS) improves response and engagement rates.

Hardcopy mail

Only a handful of unions still run direct mail programs, and these holdouts mainly send membership cards and journals in the post.

Although email and SMS outperform hard copy for campaign purposes, sending real-world letters can continue to be a part of your retention or recruitment programs. One of the tactics used in the charity sector for example, is to send hand-written letters to members at key “churn” dates. Hand-written letters can also be pre-written now for use later on — and the evidence from the US (both for charity donation and also political/electoral campaigns) that they perform very strongly.

Email and automated messaging

With news, events and updates changing daily, it is important that any automated messaging, social media or email are reviewed or rewritten to light of the current crisis.

For example, at UnionsACT, we use an extensive number of automated supporter email journeys. As the crisis developed, we had to go through all of the automations to update or pause them, so that they reflected the new situation.

Not all of your communications needs to mention or acknowledge coronavirus, but they should all be mindful of the crisis.

One thing to not do is suspend your email campaigning. The charity sector (especially large charities) have continued to increase the volume of emails they send — member/donor engagement, new member/donor acquisition and standard newsletters — throughout the coronavirus crisis.

How many total emails have been sent per week during coronavirus
Source <a rel=noreferrer noopener href=httpswwwnextaftercomnonprofit coronavirus response target= blank>Nextafter<a>

In fact, most large charities are increasing, not decreasing, their donor/member recruitment emails. In short, email remains the “killer app” for recruitment, organising and campaigning — and there’s absolutely no reason for your union to cut back on your email programs.

Online ads

A similar approach should be taken to any ad campaigns you’re running online.

At UnionsACT, we paused all of our “normal” online ads as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Of course, this also meant that our inflow of new supporters, donors and Union Shop customers also dried up.

However, I’m not suggesting that you cease online advertising, just that you review any ongoing ad campaigns you have running. With more people than ever checking social media and being online constantly, social media and Google ads will have a potentially greater reach and lower cost (due to large advertisers suspending their campaigns).

Find opposition ads

One of the things at UnionsACT that I have done is use the Facebook Ad Library to find ads being run by our opponents.

For example, as part of the campaign to push for a wages subsidy, we found ads being run by the local conservative senator (he was advertising about how great the govt’s stimulus was), and then send our supporters a link to the ad where they left comments demanding the wages subsidy.


In addition to reviewing your digital automations and advertising, it’s also important to review your union’s websites. On member support, contact and join pages, you should update text to let members or potential members know about the impact of any changes to your union’s responsiveness as a result of coronavirus.

A good tool to use to create easily designed and edited alerts on your websites is Convertflow. This is a great tool that allows non-programmers to create surveys, polls, contact forms, stickybars and popups on your site — and integrate it with your campaign database. For example, on UnionsACT’s websites, we have used Convertflow to create a stickbar that links to the ACTU coronavirus factsheet, and a side popup that informs visitors that our office is closed. This tool also lets you set specific elements for specific pages, or even for specific visitors (for example, you can set messages that only appear to members or delegates).

Research what tools are available

There’s an increasing number of tools and resources available.

For example, Google has got a list of online courses for collaboration, digital communications and even basic programming resources.

The Mobilisation Lab (the international Greenpeace campaigning institute) also has a roundup of resources developed by major campaign groups. Their training resources are also a great compliment to the new-look ACTU Trade Union Institute.

Email and marketing automation

If your union is still using Mailchimp, it’s probably time to start looking at what else is available to upgrade. At UnionsACT, we use, which is a complete email and automation tool, but there’s scores that are available (read more about marketing automation in my free Online Campaigning for Unions guide).

Remote chat tools

In response to the rapid shift to online and remote work, major corporations like Microsoft and Adobe have made enterprise tools available at vastly lower costs.

For example, Microsoft has bundled its Office 365 offering with Adobe (and the Headspace meditation app), and lowered the price. Expanding some of these enterprise tools

Most unions would be aware that remote work and communication tools like Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams have all had their prices lowered or offered free access options.

Note: A word of warning on chat apps like Slack or Teams. If your union doesn’t already use tools like these, then it is probably best for you to continue to use the existing tools (like email), rather than try to deploy something completely new. Getting the most out of Slack/Teams requires buy-in from organisers and staff. If not everyone is willing or able to use them, then it may be best to not start now.

Video and webinar tools

Tools like Zoom in particular were being used by unions and other campaign organisations prior to the coronavirus crisis to enable mass participation online in virtual meetings.

If you use G-Suite (like we do at UnionsACT) then you can also use Google Chat and Hangouts for chat and video calls. A Microsoft 365 subscription typically also comes with Skype for voice and video calls.

A caution on Zoom: There is a lot of scrutiny on Zoom over its poor security and privacy settings. Read more about it here. There are numerous low-cost and free alternatives to Zoom (see here).

There are also a large number of webinar tools — these may be more specialised for “broadcast” online video events that unions hold, rather than a tool like Skype or Zoom that are for conversations between smaller groups. I’ve used Crowdcast in the past during the 2019 election for briefings for activists, and the chat features enabled interaction. The benefit of a tool like Crowdcast vs Zoom is that Crowdcast can manage registration and attendance much better, and also lets you integrate into your email platforms. A tool like Crowdcast can also be used for member-only webinars, including recordings that are only accessible to members on your union’s website.

Task automation tools

Similarly, now is the time to look at what other automation tools are available, to try to free up more time for your organisers and campaigners.

Tools like Zapier and Phantombuster can help automate a whole range of time-consuming online tasks. For instance, you can use Zapier to automatically create meeting notes and “to-do” reminders from Zoom meetings straight into Slack, Microsoft Outlook, MS To-Do or MS Teams.

I’m a big fan of Zapier, which connects with literally thousands of online tools, and lets you automate actions and data transfer. In addition to using it as a connector for many of our online campaign tools, I also use it for a range of connections for normal office/day-to-day things.

For example, at UnionsACT, we’ve linked our office photocopier/scanner, so that when we scan a document to a specific email address, the scanned document is automatically saved into our online Dropbox account (we use this for finance records, receipts, invoices, etc). This has saved literally hours compared to having to do this manually.

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