CWU picket photos shared on social media during the Royal Mail strikes. Photos CWU

Using social media in strike ballot campaigns – CWU case study

Social media has been prominent in our recent campaigns, but the first point I want to make is that whilst it’s very visible, it’s not a silver bullet. Amongst all the things we do to get a vote out, it is quite far down the ladder. Other forums are often higher in our priorities – such as what we can do in the workplace.

Other organisations’ ballots can be run electronically, but industrial action ones are mandated by post, so we really focus around that. Obviously we represent postal workers, so we’ve got a vested interest, but whilst we support allowing electronic ballots for unions, we have to recognize the fact that we haven’t got them now.

So it’s really important that in any campaign we’re conditioning people to vote by post, via home mailings and pre-communications, via our reps network, on peer-to-peer, whatever.

Our other main priority is developing a plan for the campaign. That’s something that we’re really, really sort of massive on at CWU. Everything is drawn out from the date when we want the ballot result, working backwards. We have a well-oiled plan to deliver that result. Social media fits into that too.

Three rules for social media

We have a set of rules that we’ve implemented on how we conduct social media. So firstly, we don’t want anything posted that can’t be directly related back in the workplace. When we’re posting content it’s deliberately provocative or thought out so that people can talk about it in work the next day to their colleagues.

It’s no good putting something out just because it’s funny, edgy or just that it’s likely to get a few likes from people on the left who aren’t members of our union. We always try and make sure that we’re producing content that can start that discussion held back in the workplace.

Secondly, our yardstick for anything is how will it help get the vote? Does it help win the ballot? Does it help put pressure on the employer and the dispute, etc? So there’s a measure in there to look at how effective it will be, and how well aligned it is to our strategy.

And the third thing we always try is to give our members something practical to do in social media content. In everything we produce, we try to give the members and the reps a job. That job can be as simple as sharing a video, or showing it to five people in work tomorrow.

It doesn’t have to be full on, but we don’t want social media to become the new form of a notice board that no one reads. We want people to engage in it as a two way process.

Putting in the work

If you’re going to be successful at this, it is hard work. It isn’t just about having someone who’s cool on social media and knows when to hit a trend. There’s a ton of groundwork that goes into it.

So before we produce our social media strategy, I am almost regimentally organizing the union behind the scenes to make it work. That’s done by email. Every branch and rep will get the plan from us. We’ll tell them what their role is, when our live sessions are, what we want them doing, and so on.

Planning for comments is important. These help shape online the sessions, by making broadcast events feel more of a community to members, rather than just something to passively watch. Activists can play a really important role here if you prepare them for it.

Also notifying active members is important. You can’t rely on social platforms’ algorithms showing them all our content in a timely way. We have a WhatsApp broadcast now, which we’ve got 37,000 CWU members on. And we use that to show people key tweets that we need them to share and amplify, Facebook posts, YouTube videos. Or to say when we need them at a Live event.

That’s happening too in hundreds of local WhatsApp groups, to get our content flying around before we do our big flagship events on social media.

We always have a reps’ briefing for anything big. If we’re going live at seven o’clock say, we’d have a reps’ briefing at six o’clock where we’d talk them through what the plan for the live is, and what we need from them.

So if there’s a member who’s raising questions, then the branch secretary can be ready to pick them up in the comments, and follow it up with the member at work. Moving side points off onto separate conversations helps stop the main debate getting derailed, and not leaving people’s questions unanswered shows everyone that the community is really together, and that we do have the answers to what people need to know.

Profiling our members

We are really keen to feature our members a lot in our social media. We’ve got some great leaders in the movement – I think we’ve got a great one in Dave – but we try to highlight members wherever possible too.

We’re finding – particularly when it comes to getting the vote out – that content from your peers is really powerful. That means posties – members that other members can identify with – just standing in front of people and saying what they’re doing.

Live events

The use of our live stuff is something that we’ve developed over the last 4 or 5 years. We’re continuing to hone it because social media doesn’t stand still and we always want to try new stuff. And again, that isn’t just about clicking a button and saying, ‘oh, we’re live’ – as though all of a sudden the whole CWU membership wants to chat with us – because that’s not the reality.

People have got lives outside of work. So we put in a tremendous amount of work before we go live in pre-advertising the event, organizing our reps, making sure people are going to come on and get active in the comments.

For most of the big ones, I compere as well as having speakers, and we need people on hand specifically to run the broadcast. We’re making sure that, for example, if there’s been an attack from the company that day, we’re getting people rallied behind the union. So we’ll be cutting up footage, inserting that in the Live. We’ll be putting graphics in the Live, having live posts and stuff like that going on.

And then after as well, we make sure that we keep spreading it. So the link goes out – “great session tonight, make sure you haven’t missed it” etc.

Being brave

And that’s all prefixed by the culture which we’ve developed as a union, which is to be brave.

There is a significant risk with going live because some people are going to come on and have a go at the union. And what we’ve tried to do at CWU is say, well, what is the most grim question someone’s going to come on and ask us tonight?

You know for example, you know, a couple of years ago we, we, we had a bitter dispute at Royal Mail, and we lost against injunctions at the high court twice, within six months.

And to be honest with you, there was a percentage of our members who were basically saying ‘the union’s f*’d this up, and what’s the point of carrying on?’ So the first question that I put to Dave in that Live was, ‘has the union f*’d this up?’ Because when we did that, and when Dave took that question head on and moved past it, you just felt the membership go along with you. So not being afraid to take on those difficult questions is really, really important.

Being flexible in content creation

The Lives are not for everyone though. You may have lots of members who want to devote an hour to really know the ins and outs of every aspect of a dispute. But you’ve also got members who just go ‘give me that in two minutes’.

So it’s so important that you’ve got somebody just clipping important bits from those Lives, and sharing the snips – such as ‘here’s Dave Ward on why picket lines need to be staffed tomorrow’, ‘here’s Dave on the importance of getting the vote out’ – just those one or two minute clips.

That’s also a good use of union resource because you’re not having to sit the GS down twice to go over them again later. You’re getting, you know, 6, 7, 8, 9 clips out of an hour session that can go really far amongst your membership.

However, those don’t need to be really professionally edited. They just need to be clipped and go out quickly. Having that sort of rough and ready video alongside some more flagship videos really works well. It gives us stuff that goes well in those WhatsApp groups, or gets people to click from emails, and it all helps the union just look so busy and give members confidence in us.

Ballot day is a big deal

When we know the day the ballot papers will be landing, we’ll label the day before as ballot eve. And we try and create a Christmas-style level of excitement around that period, to get the whole union ready to go.

We’ll have ballot eve events and usually what we call National Gate Meeting Day. We call all of our members out for a meeting with their rep. We get the reps to take a photo of their branch and send it into us via WhatsApp, and we smash it all over our social media. ‘Here’s Bristol, they’ll be voting yes tomorrow’. ‘Here’s Liverpool voting yes tomorrow’.

The beauty of that is it creates a whole map of the UK. That shows you who’s doing the work, but also who’s not engaged, so if you’ve got gaps, you can deal with them.

But the brilliant thing about it as well is if you’ve got a branch where leaders aren’t doing as much, then it creates a pressure for action from the members, who are seeing hundreds and hundreds of pictures from other branches on social media, and want to know why their branch isn’t yet?

Ballot day is important to prep for because most people vote in that 72 hour period. So we go really hard in those days with text messages, with WhatsApp, with video content.

We will come back with different tactics over the course of the ballot period, to make sure we’re getting the most out that we can. We’ll produce a series of, of countdown graphics, like ’10 days left to save your pension’, ‘9 days left to win a proper pay rise’, whatever the issues are in your dispute.

We do use some paid social to get the vote out, but I think it’s far better to focus on good quality organic content that colleagues are sharing, as a way to drive offline behaviour like postal voting.

Being ready to rebut

Responsive rebuttal is really important nowadays in terms of communications in a ballot or striker, And for all the good communicators you’ve got as leaders, as members and reps, probably your best asset are idiotic employers.

It’s really important to have the ability to make capital from any errors they make, with really quick reactions to take the Mickey out of them. There was an incident a couple of weeks ago, where we caught out the CEO having someone write answers on a whiteboard for him in a live BBC interview, and we really went to town on that.

Employers put a lot of effort and resource into their communications. And if within a minute you can flip that and get your members sharing your rebuttal, that’s a real advantage.

Chris Webb is Head of Campaigns and Communications at the CWU. This blog is taken from a presentation he made to a TUC Digital Lab webinar.

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