Alexander White is a trade union campaigns communications coordinator who spends much of his time devising ways to interact with the diverse members of his union in Australia.
Noting that real-time social networking is playing a growing role in his day-to-day tasks, Alex wonders at the reluctance of some trade unions – the largest and oldest voluntary associations in the world – to make better use of it.
In his debut post for Media140, Alex urges all union leaders to set up personal Twitter accounts in order to establish a personal and accessible line of communication their constituents.
For decades, union leaders have suffered bad press. Unlike organisers and delegates who have daily or weekly contact with members and non-members, the union leader is more often than not a shadowy figure.
Few union members are likely to know the name of the secretary of their organisation. High up in the hierarchy, the leader is a ‘faceless’ individual whose motives, values and identity are mysterious. They are often accused of being out of touch, aloof fat cats who do nothing but waste members’ dues.
The open, conversational nature of social networking offers the perfect elixir to turn this around.
Union leaders are active people. They go to assemblies, meet politicians and community leaders, hand submissions to parliamentary inquiries, give press interviews and much more.
If only union leaders would harness its power, Twitter could lift the veils that hide their true faces, and reveal the ceaseless behind-the-scenes efforts the make to in the name of advocating for their members.
Composing a tweet does not require a great deal of time, thanks to the 140 character limit. Twitter can be updated via email or SMS, from a computer or a mobile phone.
That mobility and flexibility would allow union secretaries to respond immediately to news, current events or crises, or direct followers to a more detailed statement online.
Tweets are also not limited only to text. Twitpic, Posterous and other image services publish photos almost immediately, with no need to download from a camera or upload to a web page. Images of union events could reach members instantly, giving them the sense that they are sharing their leaders’ activities in real time.
Most importantly, Twitter’s @replies or direct messages have the potential to provide a channel through which members and supporters could communicate directly with leaders on important issues.
Many unions have Twitter accounts, which they use mainly to publish links to news stories on their websites. A minority of union secretaries have accounts, but those who do give an insight into how their organisation operates, and build direct, personal relationships with their members.
Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union is a good example of how this works. In my opinion, Paul tweets an engaging mix of personal, union and political comments, and often communicates with political leaders via the medium.
Communications specialists should still aid tweeting union leaders. Applications like CoTweet can be used to monitor accounts and ensure all member questions are answered and issues resolved.
There is no doubt that union leaders are adept at conversing with members; it is what they do bet in the ‘real’ world. Twitter offers them a new way to do it – and to reach those who are not present at meetings and events.
Just as business CEOs and politicians are increasingly adopting Twitter, so too should union leaders.