I’ve harped on (and on) before about the lack of interactivity in unions’ use of so-called new media. Readers have responded in two ways, saying either, “It takes resources we don’t have to manage it all;” or, “What do you mean! We respond to every email we get.”
Everyone, from local union recording secretaries to national union communications directors, will understand the first excuse. But the second one is based on a misunderstanding of what “interactivity” means. In a trade union, being interactive doesn’t mean one person having a conversation, one at a time, with different people – especially when that one person is a union official and the others are rank-and-filers. Being interactive, in an organizing sense, means having a collective conversation more akin to a union meeting. Ideally, we should be able to hear and weigh the opinions of others, make a collective decision, and then leave the conversation knowing where we’re going. And then begin to organize more effectively towards our goal.
Some unions are making great use of both old technology and new media, testing the limits of new media and using tools that members already have. Unifor, for one, seems to breaking new ground on a large scale, with 80,000 members calling in to its telephone town-hall meetings. The same open-organizing approach, applied to their online communications, is also making a bit of a splash, including a monthly Twitter question-and-answer with the union’s president.
Here’s the text of an email I recently received from Unifor communications officer Katie Arnup:
Social media activists and tweeps, this is for you: Unifor President Jerry Dias will be holding his monthly Twitter Q&A TODAY from 6-7 p.m. ET/ 3-4 p.m. PT. All you have to do is send a question to @JerryPDias during this time and Jerry will be sure to answer. Easy-peasy. Also, please be sure to RT some of the promo tweets from @UnifortheUnion.
There are some small but important details to note in this email. The language, for one thing. The message is directed at a specific audience, and constructed for the twitterverse. (My granddaughters get this: the new-to-me term “tweeps” is old hat to them. In fact, this column almost didn’t get finished when I suddenly realized that my granddaughters are about the same age as the Unifor rep who sent the email.). And the sender asks the tweeps to retweet (“RT”) messages, making the often-forgotten pitch to pass information on to others. Why doesn’t everyone do this, you ask? Because many still see communications as a one-way, hierarchical relationship between a sender and a consumer.
What’s behind this is worth speculating about. (I’d interview Unifor staff and activists about their social media tactics and logistics, but, as I write this, the union has just applied to Ontario’s labour board to become the bargaining agent for more than 6,500 workers at three Toyota plants. I suspect they are all busy. Besides, speculating is more fun.) The message was directed at Unifor members and supporters who use Twitter to communicate – and to organize. That means someone at Unifor is building a database of tweeps. (“Tweeps,” in case you haven’t figured it out yet, are peeps who tweet.). Or, they have identified tweeps amongst the folks on the union’s general mailing list. (So, how is your members/supporters/tweeps database coming along?)
All this, leading up to the main event: a social media bearpit, with the national president of the country’s largest (mostly) private sector union in an online free-for-all. Everybody and anybody with a Twitter account could watch and participate, and they did.
A session like this may not be identical to a meeting out in meatspace, but it’s pretty close. And, in some ways, it’s superior to the town-hall phone call, despite the latter’s impressive (to say the least) numbers. Calls take longer, and may make more sense when you’re making an announcement and then taking questions from a small proportion of those on the call. A tweetfest (have I coined a term?) of your union’s tweeps scoops a wider audience and builds your union’s presence online, with less mediation and filtering possible (a good thing).
Tweetfests (has it caught-on yet?) have a different and evolving audience. The old saw about Twitter being for politicians and journalists is less true than it used to be. Studies of Twitter’s user base seem to agree, more or less, that Twitter is riding the smartphone wave, meaning the average age of users is dropping. If you’re looking to connect with younger workers, whether they’re members or not, this is good to know.
The best thing about this tactic is that, unlike town-hall calls, it’s free, which means it can done more frequently, and by local unions as well as the larger, better-heeled bits of your union. If your membership is relatively small, tweetfests may not make sense. Does a local union with 100 members, 20 of whom are on Twitter, need to do this? It’s doubtful, although, if those 100 members are scattered all over the place and hardly ever able to get together for meetings in meatspace, a tweetfest might be useful. Just don’t get so enthused about talking to your tweeps that you forget about the other 80 members.
Don’t forget, this is a great way for non-members to connect with the union. And not just nationally, as with Dias’ tweetfest, but also on a much smaller scale. Your local union represents education workers heading towards a strike? A tweetfest might be one of several ways in which you could get your message out to student and parents. It would beat, or, at least, supplement, having to walk your leaflets all over town. Unlike a TV advert, a tweetfest would allow you to interact with supporters and opponents, alike, as well as, and most importantly, the undecided.
One final benefit of tweetfests: the move from communicating with your target group and organizing them to taking action can be relatively seamless, compared to the effort required during mass calls, or even at meetings. All you need to do is end your tweetfest by asking your tweeps to tweet or retweet (say that three times, quickly) something, to someone, about something connected to the tweetfest’s subject.
Time for a tweet tip, and a tweet tiff with my tweeps. (There. It’s out of my system. I’ll stop now. Is there such a thing as alliterative-compulsive disorder?) One of the things I take a turn at while wearing my LabourStart hat is managing some of our Twitter feeds. I use Hootsuite to manage a few accounts and load the tweets each morning. Hootsuite is an alternative to better-known services like Tweetdeck. Hootsuite’s free version has pretty much all the features a local union communicator would need, and lets you manage up to five social media accounts on a variety of platforms – not just Twitter, but Facebook and the others, too. It’s web-based, which means I can set the French and English Canadian union news feeds to tweet stories from LabourStart once an hour (in English) and once every two hours (in French). Then I shut down my computer and go off to work, while Hootsuite makes it look like I’m busy tweeting and posting all day (which can cause some interesting misunderstandings. . .).
Loading up Hootsuite for the day with labour news should take only 30 minutes or so; something you can do over toast and coffee. But it often takes longer because of the way most unions put their online news together, with little apparent thought about the 140-character limit to tweets. Sometimes it’s hard not to conclude that some unions are trying to make it impossible for their online news to get tweeted.
Look at a story on your union’s website. Copy the title, and add a compressed URL. If there isn’t space left for a hashtag or two, you’re going to miss the boat, unless you’re also using a Twitter feed to push a more tweet-friendly version of the title and URL. Look at your tweets. Did you leave enough space for them to be retweeted without losing their meaning? Small things may drive us crazy, but shorter titles and tweets will allow your messages to get out to more of your tweeps.