By Rachel Brickner, Andrew Biro and Joseph Hayes
A record-breaking six Canadian Association of University Teachers member associations went on strike in the 2021-2022 academic year. Seven more academic staff unions went on strike the following year. This resurgence of labour militancy in the post-secondary sector occurred amid crisis and transition within Canadian media.
In the summer and fall of 2022, we interviewed members of the communications teams from five of the six unions that had been on strike to understand how they approached communications in this shifting media environment. They (and we) learned three major lessons.
First, to the extent that strikes were covered in traditional media, stories tended to present unfiltered reporting that adhered to journalistic conventions of “balanced” coverage but offered readers little guidance in terms of assessing the truthfulness of competing claims. This gave unions and university administrators the same opportunity to communicate their messages directly to the public.
Another feature of traditional media coverage was a tendency to frame strikes as disputes over salaries, minimizing other critical issues like governance, equity and job security. To the extent that there was more in-depth coverage of the strikes in traditional media, this tended to happen in outlets that were smaller in geographic or financial scale.
Strikes at Lethbridge and Université Sainte-Anne, for example, received more fulsome coverage in the newspapers in their local communities than in the larger dailies in Edmonton, Calgary or Halifax. The Lethbridge Herald was seen as having good coverage, as was the Winnipeg Free Press for the University of Manitoba Faculty Association strike; neither is part of a major chain.
Second, while communicating to the broader public via traditional media was important, communication teams recognized that their most important audience was the union’s membership. One interviewee spoke of thinking of audiences in terms of concentric circles: union members in the centre, then students and other members of the university community, and the broader public as the outer ring. This schematic was complicated by others who found a variety of audiences outside the university, including government, the local labour movement, and other faculty unions across the country.
Communications teams were concerned with keeping a professional tone, being accountable to different constituencies, including students and parents, and bolstering members’ morale and solidarity. Truth-telling, reasonableness and professionalism were important for garnering the support of members, students and others who were less inclined to see the strike as a “political” struggle.
Interestingly, several unions also reported that during their strikes, university administrations stopped communicating with the broader public and even with students and other university community members. In those cases, unions’ communications teams took the role of communicating positions and bargaining updates to external audiences seriously.
Many unions supplied regular updates for students and parents. The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association held multiple town halls for students and parents, which not only generated support but also allowed members to see the union’s commitment to transparency and open dialogue.
Third, creating effective social media content was especially important for reaching students. It meant tailoring messages for each platform that would resonate with the audience. The informal nature of social media forced unions to find a balance between keeping a professional tone and embracing the possibilities for irreverence afforded by the different platforms. Internet memes provided an example of this tension, with some of the work of editorializing and supplying more edgy “takes” done by students and other allies.
Effective use of social media is a particular skill that requires time and commitment to generate an audience, a task that should be done in advance of the need to send critical messages. The social media ecosystem is evolving rapidly. Whereas students may have been found on Facebook in 2010 or Twitter in 2015, unions had more success reaching students on Instagram in 2021-2022. TikTok was recognized as the up-and-coming platform where students were most likely to be found, but few union communications teams were using it.
Here, too, there is a balance to be struck between keeping a “professional” tone versus the generic conventions of social media platforms that are designed to appeal to youth rather than older professionals. Still, whatever challenges there were for unions to communicate via new social media, there is no evidence that university administrators had any more success. The lesson is that communication strategies should focus on medium and form as well as on content and tone.
All the above lessons learned underscore the importance of deploying communications strategies well in advance of job action. This includes communicating with students and others about the process of bargaining and the issues at stake, setting up a tone that supports a positive image of the union that can be sustained over time, and cultivating audiences across multiple platforms.
In an evolving media landscape, getting the message out through mainstream media coverage is still important, but key components of the message can be distorted and key constituencies will not be reached. While it makes sense that union committees will need to scale up during job action, our research suggests that the complexity and importance of communications means that building a foundation for effective communication should be a priority during periods between bargaining.
Rachel Brickner and Andrew Biro are Professors in the Department of Politics at Acadia University. Joseph Hayes is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Acadia University. All three played important roles during the Acadia University Faculty Association strike of February 2022