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Developing Communication Strategies for the Future

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Our recent report commissioned by Unions21 provides insights into how unions are adapting to the challenge of new communication technology and using the internet (these blog entries accompanying this one detail some interesting examples of good practice among Unions21 members).

Additionally, we identified risks that the changing communication environment might pose to unions. In particular, we identify five areas where we believe there is space for strategic thinking on the part of the trade union movement.

  1. The challenge of specialisation, especially in smaller unions

One of our findings was that those charged with online campaigning and communications at trade unions frequently have other responsibilities. While this is likely a necessity for organisations with finite resources, it may also be problematic in the future, as the requirements of internet campaigning become ever more specialist (with an increased role for sophisticated data analysis, for example). If this is true for unions generally, it will certainly be true for smaller unions, which will struggle to develop these sorts of skills in-house. Therefore, it is important that strategies are created that prevent a skills gap developing, with unions collaborating or simply sharing information about consultants with the required skills.  

2. Resource allocation and developing new capabilities

One common refrain in many of our interviews was the desire on the part of union employees to do things they were currently not doing, especially working on different platforms (Instagram and Snapchat were often mentioned in this context). These platforms might turn out to be hugely effective, but they could equally generate a lot more work for not much return. The problem is how do unions tell a vital new platform from something that is more peripheral? There is no easy answer to this question, but it seems vital that before any investment is made in a new platform that there is a clear strategic rationale as to how it will help a union achieve its core strategy.

3. Institutional versus online organisation

In terms of progressive political activism, unions are far from the only game in town. Recent years have seen the appearance of a host of new types of organisations and groups, such as UK Uncut, the Occupy Movement and 38 Degrees. What unites these groups is that they lack traditional institutional arrangements (branches and conferences, for example). For precisely this reason, American academic Lance Bennett has referred to this new type of political activism as "connective action" (as opposed to the more traditional model of collective action).

The emergence of these new groups has significant ramifications for unions. There is a risk that newer organisational forms will be more nimble and responsive to their supporters' wishes, and thus be perceived as offering a better avenue for progressive politics. Alternatively, and more optimistically, they might provide useful allies for the trade union movement if relationships can be successfully forged.

4. Hierarchy versus organic organisation

New forms of organising and communication also pose a challenge to the internal democracy of trade unions. Historically, unions have had formalised and hierarchical systems of internal democracy, usually culminating in an annual conference.

Rightly, many in the union movement argue that the internet has the potential to engage a greater proportion of their membership in internal decision-making. However, this aspiration also raises questions. How, for example, do new online environments (such as discussion forums) function with pre-existing democratic institutions? What happens when the wishes of a union’s online community forums diverge from decisions taken by formal democratic structures? How might these tensions be reconciled?

5. Audiences and the free rider problem

Historically, unions have had clear ideas as to who they were communicating with - namely, their membership. New communication technology complicates this though. Unions can now reach out to larger audiences among the public. However, if they give away information for free (on employment rights, for example) they run the risk of creating a free-rider problem and actively discouraging would-be new members from joining. The challenge for unions is successfully exploiting the potential to reach new audiences created by the openness of the internet, but ensuring that membership continues to provide sufficient benefits to persuade people to join a union.

Alternatively, and in the longer term, there may be a need to fundamentally rethink the relationship that unions have with their members and how the work of unions is funded.  

To be clear, we do not believe that these challenges are insurmountable. Far from it. In fact, they may even be opportunities to consider and develop established practices. But we do think that, if unions are to take advantage of the real opportunities that new media offers and better serve their membership, then these are the types of questions that need to be asked.