Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Re-Branding the Labor Movement: A Post-Election Lesson

If last week's elections proved anything, it proved that the labor movement would be well advised to focus on creating change from within, rather than trying to create it by hitching our trailer up to a politician's vehicle and hoping they'll have enough horsepower to advance us forward.  In case you haven't noticed, we have yet to go anywhere in the last few decades.  We're actually rolling in reverse on several fronts.  It's time we put all of our money into an F-650, and let the politicians hitch up to us.  Perhaps then, when they actually win an election, we'll get much better results from our investments.

So, how do we begin building the F-650? Well, as you can probably imagine, there are many, many components required, both mechanical and technological.  The F-650 is a powerful vehicle, and it's pretty overwhelming to figure out how to transform a travel trailer into one of these monsters.  It's no wonder why it hasn't been done before.  However, if you focus on one piece at a time, the upgrading process is much more palatable.

One piece that I believe is of utmost importance to the labor movement is that of public relations/marketing/advertising/communications - however you want to categorize it.  It is the most ignored, overlooked, underfunded and/or ill-conceived yet fundamental element within the labor framework.  The labor movement is by and large made up of those in skilled trades - not media experts and public relations consultants - so it's no surprise that this is an area of need.   Labor needs to figure out how to fulfill it - and fast.

This is not to say that advancements haven't been made in this respect.  There are very positive examples here and there of labor organizations and individuals that are starting to get it.  It's time  that labor organizations, from internationals to locals and everyone in between, start constructing well written, organized and purposeful strategic communication/public relations plans that address not only our members, but the general public as well.  If we don't take measured steps to proactively control our image and brand awareness by focusing on brand strategy development, then the Tea Parties, Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins of the world certainly will - as they already have.

Hold on one second - brand strategy development? What the *@$#? This is not a phrase commonly heard at the hall over coffee among the retirees, at the monthly union meetings, or in apprentice classes.  If it is discussed, it's probably limited to the upper echelon of the AFL-CIO and the Internationals, who desperately need to develop and provide educational resources that can arm their locals with an arsenal of branding tools that impart a consistent message throughout the country.  Examples include: Instruction on how to develop and implement a communication/marketing plan; the importance of having an online presence that provides value through a quality website and social media profiles; how to significantly improve internal communications so that members become more invested in their local's efforts. However, in order to provide these types of resources and guidance, the upper echelon needs to figure it out for themselves first.  

In private industry circles, particularly those with names that end in Inc. or Corp., a "brand" is not simply a product name. It's an intangible impression of thoughts and feelings about your organization that can be indelibly left on a person.  
"Whatever your business, your brand is who you are, what you do, and how you build relationships with customers, prospects and influencers. Your brand is how you motivate your people. Your brand is how you fulfill the promise of your company and its products. Your brand is how you define customer experiences, make them memorable, and build brand value." (The Latham Guide, Latham and Company, LLC)
Further, your brand has significant power over your ability to shape your organization and its future - or lack thereof.  Organizations of all types spend large sums of money every year to develop, improve and  protect their brands - organizations that in some cases are much smaller, have much less at stake, or provide significantly less value to society. Consider this: Kentucky Fried Chicken spent millions to "rebrand" their image to become KFC.  Which has more societal impact?  Fried chicken or labor unions? If we based our answer on public relations budgets, the Colonel would win, hands down.

You're probably thinking that labor doesn't have the kind of money that a re-branding campaign would require.   Remind me again how much the AFL-CIO spent on election campaigns this go-around with very little to show for it?  Over $200 million?  Is it really cost effective to use union dues in the 11th hour for an election that most people felt was a waste of time anyway?   Perhaps if the international unions and the AFL-CIO had dedicated a chunk of change towards waging an intensive re-branding/marketing/communications campaign years ago, aimed at the general public and designed to introduce the 21st Century Labor Movement to the masses, it would have made life a little easier come election time.

Bottom line: Perception is everything, whether it's true or not.  The public's perception of Labor needs to change, but this will never happen unless labor organizations realize how vital public relations efforts are today for the existence of our unions tomorrow.


  1. 100%, right on the head. I think Heather's absolutely right to note that (1) things are bad and getting worse; (2) the tools and tactics are available for labor to make significant gains WITHOUT resorting to mere lobbying; and (3) without the rapid deployment of said tools and tactics, we can expect bad things to get worse.

    It has often been said that in this country, you gain political power in one of two ways: (1) have a lot of money on your side; or (2) have a lot of people on your side. In a country where the bottom 50% of citizens control less than 2% of the wealth, labor is not going to win anything in a pure money game. Its greatest strength is in the people--and I don't just mean unionists. I mean the masses of Americans who are realizing that the government has been sold to wealthy interests and people are going to have to take it back.

    But labor is applying red-coat tactics to a modern day war. Density is on the decline and unions continue to use the same organizing tactics it's employed for the last 100 years. Not to mention the unions' woefully inadequate outreach to non-union members and members of other unions. It's time for a change.

    For the first time in history, the internet and social media present a gleaming opportunity for people to connect and organize with little or no funding! Leaders and people like our wonderful Ms. Stefan must work quickly and in concert to take advantage of this moment in time to effect real change.

    But to be sure, as Heather mentioned, the moneyed interests are catching on, and it won't be too long until the internet is much less amenable to virtually free organizing. Not too long ago, Verizon and Google announced plans to destroy net neutrality (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-silver/google-verizon-deal-the-e_b_671617.html). They were stopped this time, but they won't be stopped forever. Labor must act now.

  2. I agree 1,000 percent!!! Well said and then some!