The Unions’ image problem: Challenges in communication
These two pictures, designed by Amy Jackson for Unions21, show what unions are up against when attempting to present a positive image through the media.
In this first image, the size of each word represents the frequency it was used in press releases issued by five of the largest unions over a fortnight in spring 2011:
But in the image below, the size of each word shows the number of times it was actually used in articles featuring unions in the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Sun and Mirror:
While journalists are receiving press releases from unions about negotiations, fairness, customers and agreements, they are writing stories about strikes, turmoil, irresponsibility, war and ransom.
Findings of recent Unions 21 and TUC research into young peoples’ attitudes to unions showed that though the young people surveyed had some positive word associations with trade unionism. Words such as ‘campaigning’, ‘advice’ and ‘rights’ ‘fairness’, ‘togetherness’, and ‘protection’. On the downside, were many negative connotations which came to the young people’s minds such as ‘trouble-makers’, ‘scaremongering’ and ‘disagreements’.
So, we brought together a panel of people who work, or have worked, in the world of communications to give us the hard truth about what they think unions could do to update their image. Their views are published in the paper: The Future for Union Image, to be published on Monday by Unions21.
NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said in her contribution that partial, subjective or inaccurate reporting of union activities is partly due to the chronic understaffing of newsrooms and the loss of industrial correspondents. Part of the job of unions, then, is to understand the benefit of investing in their press office to assist journalists in getting positive stories into the media.
Michelle also recommends that the members unions put in front of the media, for example at conferences, should be broadly representative of the cross section of ages, of gender, of race that our movement represents.
Writer and trainer Paul Richards’ advice is to drop the jargon – he argues that Trade unionism, like every other walk of life, has developed its own slang, jargon and insiders-only language, every bit as impenetrable as polari, doctors’ slang, cockney rhyming slang, computer hackers’ slang. He reminds us that talking about Collective bargaining, Constructive dismissal and Transfers of Undertakings is language entirely impenetrable to most people and off-putting and alienating to many.
Tim Finch from the IPPR has an optimistic analysis: That unions have a once in a generation opportunity to shift the paradigm back in our favour. Though, he notes that unions need to consider the risk of any situation where winning a narrow argument in the media could cause a loss of sympathy with the wider public.
Tim suggests that communications teams have to work harder to highlight the work unions do outside of industrial action. Positive individual stories unions could share with the media include those of the hundreds of thousands of working people who are involved in a learning opportunity delivered through their union, and supported by unionlearn, every year.
Branding professional Joe Goldberg says unions need to understand how their audience has changed, and create a new brand offer to the ‘squeezed middle’ and those working in sectors with low membership density.
Social Media professional Mike Harris reminds us that we can by-pass the tradition media by using the internet. He recommends unions should perform a social media audit to identify their most highly networked members and involve them in delivering their communications. High profile supporters can be used to attract new interest online and well crafted online ‘asks’ can be used to build support and membership.
Bill Ivory, who wrote the script for the film Made in Dagenham, calls on unions to provide the big personalities and narratives that help people see them as makers of social drama and change.
As with all Unions21’s work – this publication has been produced to stimulate debate and the discussion will continue at launch events in Parliament and TUC Congress. The full text of the publication will be on the Unions21 website from Monday 4th July.