Unions must update the way they communicate says Bell Pottinger’s chairman David Wilson

Reinventing, refreshing and modernising. Brands can’t stand still – if they do they wither, perish and die. As our world changes, so brands need to change with the times and embrace the new environments in which they exist, just as we do ourselves … we never stop building and learning. 

But what of those organisations whose very ethos may, perceptionally at least, be considered outdated for the 21st Century? Surely the greatest example of those facing such a challenge would be the unions. In looking at this example, I declare an interest. As a fledgling cub trainee reporter working a 50-plus hour week, I was lobbied to join the then powerful National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

Intrigued, my mind was swayed by a NUJ vote to strike in favour of printers who’d been dismissed eight months before following opposition to the group’s modernising plan. This had divided the company. With dwindling numbers of hardline pickets still standing sentry at group HQ, their journalist brethren had finally decided to show solidarity.

It wasn’t the vote which made me question the merit of joining their rank, more the 27/22 ballot result to reject a strike. The NUJ’s next move? Yep, this “democratic” movement provided the minority with their picketing orders for two weeks of unproductive disruption, while the majority worked normally. How could a minority rule in a democratic country? In those days, union madness held sway. The experience highlighted a need for change and new laws followed – imposed by a Thatcher Government.

Time has passed, and unions have merged and rebranded, but trends show that overall union membership has more than halved from the 1980s’ heyday (Source: UK Government of BIS publication).

Back in the 1980s, disputes for miners, dockers, printers, public sector workers and others seemed commonplace. Union disputes gave way to violent scenes in Brixton and Toxteth, tearing at the very fabric of our society.

Fast forward three decades and student demonstrations have descended into violent disorder. Underground and overground rail strikes have stopped trains operating. Public service workers are protesting. Unions are flexing their muscles. Has the world wound back three decades?

Possibly yes. But there are fundamental differences.

Our present Coalition Government is faced with cost-cutting necessity to balance economic books, just as the Tory Government had in the 1980s. What is different – if polls are true – is the fact that up and down the country the public believes in the need for economic prudence.

So what might shift opinion towards our trade union bruvvers and get support for industrial action to protect members’ terms and jobs? Targeting “big impact” opportunities like Christmas and Easter holidays, or even a royal wedding, will simply lose them public support and sympathy.

With a little over seven million union members among a 62 million strong UK population, the unions possess a powerful force to convey their message effectively. But the “cloth cap” mentality that still adorns the rhetoric of certain union leaders won’t help their cause. People need to see and understand justification for any disruption.

Union leaders must drop the bravado and begin to communicate effectively, in a modern language for a modern society. Then people will begin to listen, approve and endorse them. They need not look further than their own slimming membership numbers to underline the need for change.

On the political front, strike action would surely play into the hands of Cameron and Clegg, at a time when an ineffective union-funded Labour Party is still in transition … some might say turmoil! So wouldn’t it be refreshing for union leaders to drop the militancy, take a seat at the leadership table, and with realism and an open mind, hold constructive discussions that will shape better futures.

Time has moved on but some union leaders have not. Will they grasp the nettle and recognise that every brand has to modernise to embrace new times?

David Wilson is Chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations.

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