Responding to the coronavirus crisis – NEU case study

At the NEU, we have been developing our use of digital channels in our response to the coronavirus crisis.

This has been a difficult time for our members, with schools mostly closed, new ways of working for teaching staff and great uncertainty for the future. It has also brought profound changes for the union and our ability to support members and activists.

But our digital offering has made a big positive contribution. Over the last month, we have recruited more than 5,000 new members and 300+ new reps through digital.

Here are some of the techniques we have used:

YouTube video briefings

Our initial member briefing video was taken up by teachers very quickly and widely, as people sought out the latest news. It got to number 10 in the UK YouTube charts for a while 

Since we have been working from home, recording updates has become less straightforward. We have had to record video updates (like this one) from our own homes on separate devices, with our digital comms colleagues putting it together and polishing it up for us afterwards.

We have also sought to use videos as a way of presenting to other audiences as well. Our President Amanda Martin recorded this update aimed at parents and students. 

Telephone town halls 

We’ve used this tactic to host four more interactive briefings with members, hearing the concerns and tailoring our answers. We used Tele-Town Hall software to connect members by phone and managed questions via Microsoft Teams.

These have been a more involved ask for members, but have been popular too. The first we ran was attended by  around 2,500 members, and the second by 3,500. We ran a more specialised one just for members in our supply teachers’ section, which had 1,000 attendees. By the time we ran our fourth session, we think we had dealt with many of the most immediate questions already, and the audience was lower at 700.  

We also used this software for a call with all 500 of our staff. We recorded the audio for these calls and made them available via YouTube like this one.

Coordination with reps and local officers

We’ve used Zoom video conferencing to host large meetings for particular groups. We had 200 on our local officers’ call, and 500 on a call for workplace reps. We managed questions for the call though MS Teams.

In these calls we have been aiming at supporting reps in a negotiating approach at school and college level. We created a winning in the workplace web page – where we also included examples of good practice and agreements.

We’ve also simplified the process of becoming a rep, so that more members can take activist roles with the union, whilst our traditional structures for this are unavailable.

Reaching out to as many reps as possible has been a priority for us. Distributed contact software like Call Hub can share the work of making individual phone calls or texts to a wider group of people.

Sharing the task between NEU staff, we have made 4,602 attempted calls so far to our reps, with 1,544 conversations taking place (a 33.6% success rate). 150 staff have been involved in making these calls, with a good number of volunteers from head office whose work had otherwise declined and who could be reallocated onto making calls.

This was a new tool for most people using it, so we also ran a regular weekly training and catch up session on Microsoft Teams for all involved.

We have been encouraging local officers to set up WhatsApp groups or similar for their reps and currently experimenting with Guild groups. These groups have been an active source of information , insights from which which have helped us improve our FAQs.

A special microsite aimed at parents and carers

To bring together our advice for parents on an ongoing basis, we developed a dedicated coronavirus in schools website. It was designed in house, and a signup form from our campaign CRM Action Network helped us gather email addresses that we can update.

Tailoring the site in this way made it an easy central resource to share and it was heavily promoted by a number of Labour MPs to their constituents.

Regularly updated FAQs aimed at different sections of our membership

As the situation has been moving so fast, it has been important to factor in how we will keep any advice we publish up to date. We have a central location for related content, which brings in the latest resources at

And we have made a What We Say Today feature, which is updated daily.

We have written clear themed FAQs presented as “10 things you need to know” PDFs that have been widely shared. This is both around contract advice and “professional advice” like this one for primary teachers.

We have also used joint union advice to good effect to help pool insights. For example, here is a Welsh language version of our guidance, produced with NAHT, ASCL and UCAC.

These resources are all promoted to members and activists via our Facebook page.

For now our Adviceline has moved to email only, to help manage the number of enquiries as effectively as possible.

We’ve aimed at answering as many FAQs as we can, but then aimed for an organising way of answering them –encouraging reps to engage with the advice we’re putting out. Advice from the line tries to encourage collective approaches. We have also had a team doing the same re queries posted to our facebook and twitter accounts.

Regular, segmented emails to different sections of our membership

As there is so much information flying around at the moment, it’s important where we can to deliver only the most relevant content to any group of members.

Rather than sending to our whole list, we try where possible to email specific and specialist advice to different segments of our membership, such as supply teachers, support staff, school leadership, and members in independent and special schools.

Digital campaigns

We identified several needs from members early on, and wanted to get out there quickly on important issues for them. For example, we quickly prioritised that vulnerable staff and staff who live with vulnerable people should be able to withdraw from work.

This issue has proved a real mobiliser and we have won the position widely. Where local management didn’t initially agree, we encouraged reps to organise the sending of a letter as an entry level tactic.

We have also used digital to help us get out our concerns out more rapidly and widely – such as speaking about how schools and staff can support vulnerable children.

Getting our ideas known, and ensuring our public affairs staff can work effectively remotely, has helped in our engagement with with DfE, Ministers, new Labour shadow cabinet and stakeholders such as Ofqual. It has helped influence thinking and outcomes on issues such as changes to exam grading and the provision of Free School Meals over Easter.

Targeted social media posts and Facebook advertising

Where we don’t yet have subscribed contact channels for our audience, we use targeted posts and promoted posts to get out information to specific groups. This has included issues concerning vulnerable children, pregnancy and maternity and advice for parents and carers.

Promoting posts in this way has a cost attached, so we want to make sure that we are spending the money on targeting content to the right people wherever possible.

Cloud based business software

As a result of the IT infrastructure project that was rolled across the union after the merger between NUT and ATL, all NEU staff are now using Office 365. This cloud based office software which has allowed staff to access office tools like Outlook, Word and Excel from home, as well as union specific systems NEUS and My View.

The IT department have also put in place new business continuity arrangements to allow for other systems (eg Finance, HR, Seneca) to be accessed remotely, letting our staff complete essential tasks from home, to keep the organisation functioning.

Coordination meetings on Lifesize

We have regular meetings with our regional secretaries, senior management team and of a special coronavirus task group to coordinate all of this work.

Of course the content and strategy matters – even more than any communication methods. But given the scale of the disruption to our usual ways of working, these technological changes have made a big difference in the degree to which we are able to support out members during the crisis.

We intend to repeat, develop and extend these during the next period. We know we can do all of them better. But we are proud of the way our staff have adapted and are really pulling together to provide the best help and advice for our key worker members.

Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted are the joint General Secretaries of education union NEU. They are members of the TUC Executive Committee, where they lead on digital transformation issues.