Journey to digital – developing new tools for reps

Journey to digital – developing new tools for reps

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About the author: Andrew Pakes

Andrew PakesAndrew Pakes is Director of Communications & Research at Prospect.

In the blog Andrew explores the way an increasingly digital world can mean improved opportunities for unions to communicate their message.

The medium and language may be changing, but there is a lot about the move to digital that looks like traditional union organising. It is about bringing together the best of both worlds – new digital opportunities and effective organising. Unions have thrived when people have reacted to injustice and organised for a voice in the means of production. Digital is about harnessing new opportunities to apply these values. It isn’t always easy. Unions have cultures and traditions carefully crafted over many years. But taking on the challenge is worthwhile.

The journey to digital is something that Prospect has been grappling with over the last two years.  Our starting point was where it always should be – with members, and potential members.  We located the move to digital not just in communications, but as part of our wider organising strategy. How does this help us build a stronger union? How does digital create opportunities to simplify our member services? How does it help turn more members into activists and reach into new workplaces?

The changes we are introducing to support out frontline reps are part of a wider pivot for our communications team. This is not simply a cost cutting exercise or move away from print to online communications but a conscious deployment of digital content and new channels to supplement organising and recruitment activities.  We have undertaken a wholesale change in our communications department, reshaping roles to support digital content, and bringing in new staff with outside experience of digital and online campaigning. 

Making a start – getting the evidence

What else would a union do with a new challenge then set up a working group? So, our starting point was a review. Unions need to ensure they have the infrastructure in place to manage digital opportunities. The lesson from Prospect’s recent communications review is that change needs to be planned. With the scale that we were looking at, it was vital that our lay leadership were involved alongside the professional staff. Ownership matters, especially when it is highly visible in terms of changes that members will be part of.

We asked our members directly for their views on our communications. In terms of our printed publications, our members survey showed that they were well-regarded, yet only about a third of respondents said that they read them.  We then developed a specific survey aimed at our reps to ask them not just about our publications, but also about how they wanted to be supported as our frontline activists.

The most important findings that came out of survey, was that regular communication is helped activists feel connected to the rep network.  Our survey said:

  • The most valuable resources are ones that reps can use locally – success stories, reasons to join, posters, help with local events.
  • Whilst many liked our magazine, it was not essential for doing their job as a rep.
  • Our magazine format was not regular enough and did not provide focussed tools to update and support reps.

Whilst 71 per cent of reps said that they read our Reps magazine, Report, nearly two thirds said they wanted us to look at new approaches of engagement and support.

We asked reps what three things they most wanted out a digital communications approach. The response was:

  1. Contact with other reps (forums, networks, knowing who they are)
  2. Electronic learning – a lot of reps mentioned they can’t get to training courses, but would do training on line
  3. Easier to find and more frequent information on handling cases, including more detailed FAQs, easy access to experts, being able to ask other reps for advice, having flow charts and guides.

None of this should be new. Activists want the tools and support necessary to do represent their members, and with the collective sense of being part of something bigger. Digital is just a medium to help us achieve these goals.

Digital means for union ends

We are now using this evidence to implement our digital strategy. We have invested in new responsive email software to enable us to have both higher quality and better reach with our member communications. We are using our database to target communications better at different groups, roles and functions. Our Legal Eye bulletin is still one of the most widely downloaded items as it provides relevant updates and news about one of our key services. We have a new Health & Safety email bulletin bringing together the latest tools and information for reps. It does what it says on the tin, direct to reps inboxes.

We have also created a union app as a portal for our member magazine and to trial a platform aimed at Android, iPhone and mobile users. We will shortly be launching the first trial of an e-learning package for reps on gender pay gap reporting. We’ve enabled digital campaigning through the use of ‘email your MP’ software and a series of campaign-based microsites, and last year we trialled a union ‘crowdsourcing’ campaign. We’ve introduced a new multi-channel member contact centre with extended opening hours, and we’ll shortly be launching web-chat on the Prospect website. We’re getting better at social media and mobile-first design, and we’re using analytics to understand the journeys our members and prospective members are taking online. The pace of change in the technical world is astounding, and we know that unions need to not just catch-up, but keep up.

The next steps

The journey is not so much about a destination as a mindset about how we approach communications and share information across the union. The development of digital communications has opened up new channels for unions to share their stories and engage with members, especially when compared to the challenges of developing positive stories in the traditional media. For us, digital is about synthesising the best of our campaigning with new ideas from other sectors.

Better use of websites, engaging digital content and the opportunities of creating digital communities all offer new approaches to activism. These are especially powerful tools against a backdrop in which larger workplaces are on the decline and new identity agendas, such as on equalities, are increasing.

Andrew tweets at @andrew4mk – This blog first appeared on the Unions 21 website.

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