Wednesday 5 June 2013

Trade Unions and Television

At my Unite branch meeting tonight, we heard the welcome news numbers had increased by an additional 47 people on last month. That, combined with recently released figures that tentatively suggest a reversal of trade unions' downward spiral is heartening. After all, getting greater numbers into Britain's largest membership civil society organisations is what all labour movement people are, or should be, about. Now, as you might expect, especially over the course of a long decline, there has and continues to be extensive debates on how to get our unions relevant again. Some comrades believe that offering bold, fighting alternatives will see millions of working people march back into trade unions. Others suggest offering a fancy credit card and discount holidays is just the ticket

Whether it's political messages or gimmicks, getting ordinary folk to pay attention is still a difficult job. You can therefore understand the trade union enthusiasm for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They offer quick, efficient and cost-free ways of putting a message across without having to rely on a middleman. But, for whatever reason, the outlets we have massively under-perform. My union's official Twitter feed only has 19,000 followers. For a behemoth of 1.2m members, that's not great. The TUC's media account is in fact worse, managing just 12,000 followers. Sadly, their respective YouTube presences are equally featherweight. Unite's channel has 439 subscribers and 277,727 views. For the TUC channel it's only 185 subscribers and 107,057 views. Sadly, these are typical of trade union social media in general. Clearly, a lot of thinking and work needs doing around the content offered and how it should be used strategically. But that is a book, never mind a blog post, in itself.

Alongside the sexiness of the new media, I do think a lot of trade union press departments are enamoured with the printed word. Like mainstream parties, radicals of the left and neanderthals of the far right, the stories and spin that clogs the dailies are still front and centre in our movement's media people's minds (and not a few activists too). And to a degree, it's right that this is the case. The national dailies still have a paid circulation of approximately eight million, and a reach way beyond that. But, apart from The I, all papers are locked in stubborn, long-term decline. A mass audience is there but it is shrinking. And, of course, taken as a whole Britain's newspapers are structurally biased against trade unions.

But I think a trick is being missed. What about television? I mean, when was the last time you saw an advert for a trade union on our screens? I can't remember ever seeing one, though this - courtesy of Unison - did the rounds in the late 90s:

Yes, primetime TV advertising can be expensive, but not prohibitively so for the larger unions or the TUC collectively. Where else could a union reach a captive audience of millions without having its message edited and distorted by some latter day Kelvin MacKenzie? So instead of pouring time and effort into media work with comparatively little to show for it, shouldn't unions embrace a little bit of 20th century thinking and look again at television to publicise their work and get the members in?


Owen said...

Phil, I thought you believed in evidence-based decision-making? If so, this is a staggeringly unresearched piece, and I speak as a fan. The fact that you haven't even noticed that Unison have repeated their TV advertising on several occasions since the 90s demonstrates just how effective anything other than blanket advertising is. It is staggeringly expensive, compared with almost ever other approach unions could take (as you indicate, ONE SPOT across the ITV networks at prime time - when most workers might see it, and remember that individual TV channel audiences are slumping almost as fast as newspaper readership - costs a lot, let alone the blanket advertising required to get through to people. Bizarrely, unions have actually thought about this, and generally discarded it. There are two ways to recruit members, basically: one is by demonstrating you have something they want (collective bargaining, although clearly this can take many forms) and asking people: we have 6 million potential recruiters who could do what advertisers have now realised is the most effective form of advertising - viral, peer group association. And remember this - unions recruit about half a million members a year (and we lose as many, mostly when they change jobs) so our problem could be described as one of retention rather than recruitment

Anonymous said...

And, in fact, UNISON just recently spent a load of money on TV ads - you can see the most recent here:

Phil said...

The use of television has to be thought about strategically. The prime time slots cited here were just an exemplar. There is certainly something to recommend advertising on cable TV channels, depending on what your desired market is. For instance, why shouldn't unions buy advertising space on music channels or reality TV channels where it's much cheaper and they're more likely to reach younger people?

The second issue is one swallow does not make a spring. I now know Unison have recently run an ad campaign, and have at intervals since the video embedded in this post. But they're the only ones who have. There is no publicly-avaliable evidence that other unions have thought about this, except in connection to YouTube channels.

Alex said...

That said, the TUC policy division's blog has done very well and some of the people involved draw a lot of water in their own right.