Reviving Labour's Image

Thursday, September 13, 2012

At NOW, we’re fortunate to work with great unions across the country. Together, we’ve had a lot of success in modernizing and reshaping their image and brands.  We’ve broadened their appeal, shown why the work of their members matters and how it makes a difference in the world around them. In building a relationship with the public, we’ve helped our union clients win victories at the bargaining table, protect the services families count on, and even influence public policies to make life better for more people.

As we like to say at NOW: much accomplished, more to do. Many unions still have a long way to go to revitalizing their image. The labour movement as a whole has an even bigger image challenge. No one underestimates what a tough job this is, given the political forces and societal trends working against us. But here are some of the things that have helped our clients show how unions are more relevant today than ever.

Make friends – because when you need a friend, it’s too late to make one

Too often, unions focus the bulk of their communications efforts and resources on bargaining and election battles. The result is that your audiences only hear from you in confrontational situations, when you want to get something or you want to stop something. It’s crucial to build a relationship with people first. Show them how what you do makes a positive difference in their lives. Speak out on the things that can make their life better. In short, show them you care about them. When you build that relationship, your audiences will be much more likely to understand what it is you’re asking for and to support you when the time comes.

Know your audience

Gosh, we spend a lot of time talking to each other on the left. (And arguing with each other!)  And within unions, we often spend a lot of time talking to activists – and not so much to the rank and file. It’s no surprise that most union members haven’t got a clue what the union does for them and why they should care. Regular members should be your first audience. The persuadable public should be your second. It’s always a bit of an eye-opener when folks who should be sympathetic aren’t. Who would you expect to be onside and isn’t? Why aren’t they? See above and below. Use research to know who your audience is and how to reach them.

Talk about them, not you

Think of a party where someone comes over to chat you up and spends all of his time talking about himself and his goals. You move on pretty quickly. The reality is people are interested in people who are interested in them. Unions need to make sure to talk less about yourselves and what you want for yourselves, and more about your audiences and what you want for them. And yes, that also means listening to what they want. It’s a conversation that will lead to a place where you recognize mutual goals and objectives. And that’s how you win progress.

Live in the present

Unions have achieved so many gains for working people, families and society over the last century. We love to celebrate those victories and we’re fighting to protect them. Where unions are less successful is in talking about why they’re relevant today. What are you doing now to make a difference in people’s lives? What do you do on a daily basis for your members and the people you serve? Simply put: “What have you done for me lately?”

Speak to the future

Kids today! It’s not surprising that youth and young adults, including progressive ones, don’t know much about unions. We haven’t really been speaking to them. So what they do know comes from media sources and businesses that have waged war on unions for years. Unions need concerted campaigns to reach out to and speak with youth. We need to make the case, in the era of growing individualism, for the power of shared purpose, the common good and how unions can be the vehicles for their hopes and aspirations.

Modernize your look, language and tone

All of this requires in many cases a rebranding effort. Unions need to modernize the look of everything from logos to websites. You need to invest in great design and production values. Why? Because you’re competing for attention and affection in a sophisticated marketplace. Modernizing your language and stripping it free of old jargon is also key. Most important, though, is getting the tone right. A light touch works better than a heavy hand. Gentle humour better than frat boy humour. Straight talk better than rhetorical excess. You get the idea.

Produce creative that both entertains and informs

Communications need to engage. A growing number of unions have recognized that fact and have tried to capture people’s attention with creative that’s outside the expected. The record of success, though, is a mixed one. Ads that fail to deliver your message, no matter how creative, are a waste of money. Of even greater concern are those that get the audience wrong and the tone wrong. Those ads deliver an image of the union that can offend your members and damage your brand.

Invest in online and social media – but don’t put all your eggs there

We now have these great vehicles to communicate with and mobilize people. We need to maximize their potential – and recognize their limits. Social media is great for reaching particular audiences and those people most engaged in our issues. But it’s still a very rare social media campaign that can move public opinion in the way that mass media campaigns can.

Pool your resources

To truly revitalize labour’s image in Canada – whether at the provincial, territorial or national level – we need to pool resources. Individual unions alone can’t carry this responsibility or meet this challenge. We need well-resourced, shared campaigns that speak to the contribution, value and vitality of the labour movement as a whole. This, of course, requires enormous leadership and cooperation. It needs to be done.

Work with people who believe in you

The best way to achieve all this is to work with people who believe in you. The left needs to build and support its own infrastructure. The other side does it. That means choosing communications companies who share your values, understand who you are and what you’re about and practice what you preach. It’s always a bit alarming when a union hires an ad agency that works for union raiders or one that gives thousands of dollars to your political opponents. It’s also disheartening to see unions go to corporate firms that do great beer ads but know nothing about promoting causes and social change. So do the research. Look for innovative, creative and strategic people who share your passion. Look for the best fit for you.

Believe, more than ever, in your product

What you do is as important today as ever before. And though you know that in your head and heart, it’s hard not to get discouraged from time to time when you’re getting beat up out there. You have a great product. People want it. They just don’t necessarily know that yet. Our job, together, is to get them there.