Trade unions trend to veer towards detailed, legally approved guidance, 'correct' procedures, protocols, committees and subcommittees. Social media on the other hand is fast changing, unruly, and without much guidance.
There is a lot written on the internet about how to use the internet. Part of the problem of getting the message on how to use the internet more constructively to those who don't use the world wide web is breaking down the mystique surrounding it.
So when a blogger talks about hashtags or 'hits', for most trade unionists, the mind boggles. So how to talk about this blog post with an NEC member who doesn't even use their own email address, let alone their own twitter account?
Another issue is being a bit smarter with your smartphone in the workplace. We need good guidance for members to avoid getting themselves into trouble (and for activists to avoid unnecessary casework). The LRD recently published guidance following reps coming across increasing amounts of disciplinary cases as a result of ill advised Facebook comments. It needs to be boiled down into bite sized chunks. For starters, how about:
* Don't call your boss a 'F*%king W%£*er!' online.
* Don't boast on Facebook about going to the pub all day when you are 'off sick'...
There is lots of promotion of the internet for a communication tool for activists but not a great deal of guidance for members on being smarter when they use their smart phones.
I've written this all up after looking at some notes I took at conference. I had these noted down (with a pencil on paper, btw) as I was sitting on the top table at UNISON's National Delegates Conference because I'd been asked to speak on behalf of the NEC on Motion 6 which talked about increasing our social media usage. The motion didn't get prioritised, so my speech never got heard. (Ah well - always next year, I suppose).
Facebook 'Groups' vs 'Pages'
When I was suspended from work, one of the first things that the campaign group set up was a Facebook 'Group' to Defend Jawad and Max', and we invited all our 'Friends' to join - they could then get daily, or even hourly updates on the campaign. It quickly - very quickly - gained over 1,000 members.
The good thing about a FB Groups is anyone can post into them (you can choose moderators to avoid spam) if they're a member and anyone can invite their friends to join - so it can snowball without much admin or effort and is participatory. Members of the group can feel part of something they're able to influence.
London Met branch has a FB Group but not a page or a profile, and activists are given admin rights so they can deny or approve member requests - only members can join our branch but often students or other activists want to join. They have to be a full member to get access to our group. Other branches, I've noticed go for public, open pages or groups and I'm an honorary 'branch member' of a few 'groups'. I'm 'honoured', but I do think it's better for a members only forum so you can see who is a member and discuss workplace issues only with those effected by that issue.
By the way, if you have more than 250 members of a group it is too late to change your group name. So when Steve was suspended we couldn't add his name to that group... Choose your name wisely, and remember this is one of the many limits of letting someone else control the management. Lots of Facebook profiles can disappear over night on Facebook, so don't rely on it too much (more on that later).
Blogs and branch websites
We also set up a campaign blog for the defend Jawad Max and Steve campaign. This meant the campaign committee (set up by the branch but not exclusive to the branch committee) could elect our own comms team that updated that blog which was only about that campaign.
A blog is very easy to set up and if you are going to run a serious campaign with any length of time it's good to have a separate site. Wordpress and Blogger are as easy to learn how to use as email and I'm always amazed at how many branch don't have functioning websites or ones that haven't been updated for years. Our branch website, of course, is very cutting edge.
I propose an annual competition with awards at NDC for the best UNISON branch website which neatly uses social media and actively engages members. Branches could submit their own and a voting system (online of course) could decide the winners from a shortlist. If the NEC doesn't agree to this, then the twitterers can set up their own...
I appreciate the limits of it, but for many people - especially support staff sat behind a desk all day with a strong sense of social injustice combined with a feeling of helplessness of their alienating day job - so called 'clicktivism' can be a real outlet. And it can have a tangible impact too.
For example: our campaign for reinstatement had a 'take action' page. This included sending a model email to the powers that be in our Uni. The link took you to a page with a very simple form. You enter you email, your name and then click 'send' to fire off an email that went to the VC, the director of HR, and a blind copy went to unison - so we could count them coming in and also we then added the email to our email list of supporters. Over 600 of these were sent. If you are doing a day job and in two weeks you get over 600 emails having a go at you, it tends to get noticed.
The Labourstart website does this regularly with good effect (as was mentioned in Motion 6), but you can set these up yourself on a blog yourselves, so don't feel you have to ask Eric Lee personally to do it for you. Eric Lee by the way preaches caution about outsourcing your online campaign to Facebook. He tried to set up a rival called Union book but I've not been back for a while, tbh.
Lobbies, and 'virtual lobbies'
At London Met we have had too may lobbies of our Board of Governors meetings to remember them all in the last few years, so when we ran a campaign against privatisation last year we decided to try something new: a 'virtual lobby'. It worked really well. Instead of encouraging members to come to stand outside a building and hold a placard, listen to some speeches - with the risk not many would turn up at the end of their working day when they are heading home - we organised a photo shoot in the workplace.
Activists went round with a placard on the day of the 'lobby' and asked members to have their photo taken holding a 'No to Shark Services' message, and over 50 people took part. The photos were all sent in by email (via some activists using their 'smart phones' of course). Then a slide show was set up on our website and these slides were sent as an email to all of the Governors.
We won that campaign. We don't know whether it was over 100 members saying in email to the VC they would not sign a new contract and refused to be TUPEd over, or whether our ballot for industrial action had been approved by the region, or was it the impact of this virtual lobby that helped tip the balance in our favour. Probably all combined but what is certain is more members participated in the virtual lobby more than the numbers who turned out for our actual lobby a month or two later.
Youtube - reaching way beyond your activist base
That lobby went well, and then we had a seminar about a paper by an academic called Steve Jefferys - and about 25 people attended. Not bad - an audience of activists now fully up to date with strong arguments against privatisation informed by with evidence-based research. Even better though; over 150 people then watch the film of that meeting online on our own Youtube channel. Easy to do, easy to set up, and all done in-house with the volunteered skills of our own members.
In the blogosphere, the words 'Youtube helps you get a bigger audience' might not exactly sound like a sophisticated analysis or a new idea, but trade union activists really do need to have guidance provided on just how simple it is to do this. It doesn't have to be a glossy, million-dollar advert to join your union that looks like an insurance sales advert.
To tweet or not to Tweet?
Some people love it and are clearly obsessed (dare I say addicted), and others just ignore it and wait for the phase to pass: the dreaded Twitter. I have an account and I do dip in and out.
Some branches have a branch account and others spend more time tweeting that meeting members, frankly.
The #undc13 hastag was a good example for me of how Twitter can be great and awful at the same time. Almost as if there were two very different conferences in June. Maybe that is to do with the frustration of people not getting past Standing Orders to get their views heard? Maybe some people prefer shouting from the side lines than actual debate.
The way people talk to each other on twitter is not generally the way you would talk to somebody face to face (or from a top table). So I'm not a huge fan, but I did enjoy getting some feedback from other tweeters about what UNISON could do to improve. Here are some:
(You just wouldn't say this from the top table...)
@salaam_max totally agree. We are tweeting in the name of UNISON but we need to appear more human!
(Bold added for this post: I think this is a really good point about being human. Sometimes a bureaucracy just cannot and never will be able to sound human! Especially when every communication has to be checked by a boss and their bosses' boss to sign it all off... Unions have to let their activists be trusted to build up relationships.
For those thinking 'WTF is an infographic?' Here is one I 'Liked' on FB recently (at top).
Personally, I'm less mad about Twitter but some clearly love it. Some of the rubbish said about amendment 8.1 is better not read at all as you might come away thinking the #UNDC13 was full of bigoted fools who do not want to resist against violence against women when that is clearly nonsense.
During our campaign for reinstatement this year a rep told me how impressed they were with how quickly her tweets about the petition we had was being retweeted around the world, going viral. It is clearly something people need to think about if they want to get people's attention with a big campaign. I am skeptical about your average members using it in their day to day lives to get their UNISON updates though so don't go dropping your printed newsletter just yet.
'Union island' - a warning
Remember 'second life'? Remember how were were all going to be living virtual lives and those news stories about people getting rich on their 'second' currencies? Some union activists got all excited about it and set up a 'union island' and it flopped. The lesson? Wait to find out if it is a phase before jumping on EVERY bandwagon. Don't go setting up an account for the branch for each and every new fangled 'exciting' social media which turns out to just make you look like you are trying to be young and edgy (and face it, you're probably not really are you?!)
Don't wait too long though - Facebook is not exactly a phase but its star is fading and many trade unionists only just got used to the idea of it.
There is loads out there about the limits of using electronic media and some great stuff go sent to me about this topic when I tweeted about it which I am grateful for but cannot link to all of it here as this blog post is way too long already.
Face to face - better than a Facebook chat
You cannot substitute talking face to face with members and it always beats Facebook messaging them but that's not always possible. That should never be forgotten though and if you're substituting your corridor walks and talking with members for a browse online then you need to be honest about what you are really doing (wasting time).
I hope there is enough here to spark a little debate and keep the ideas shared at #undc13 going and who knows, maybe at #undc14 we will see an improved social media presence among our own. Maybe even a motion that gets discussed?
Right, now 'get off the internet, I'll see you in the streets,' as they used to say somewhere online... Oh, one more thing before you go, have you filled in this survey yet?