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Professional Opinion

Strong messages can defuse campus unionizing campaigns

Leaders should develop communications strategies to win hearts and minds
University Business, July 2016
Nick Kalm is president and Courtney Harper is senior vice president at Reputation Partners, a communications consultancy that specializes in labor communications for universities and other organizations.
Nick Kalm is president and Courtney Harper is senior vice president at Reputation Partners, a communications consultancy that specializes in labor communications for universities and other organizations.

Unionizing efforts are picking up steam at colleges and universities across the country. In the last three years, the Service Employees International Union’s “faculty forward” campaign has organized more than 10,000 part-time instructors at more than 40 different schools.

Beyond the widespread cultural impact, this trend has significant financial implications for universities. If union targets for higher pay are met, U.S. universities’ costs for courses currently taught by adjuncts could increase to $24 billion from $4.3 billion, according to a study recently cited in The Wall Street Journal.

Unionization movements will continue to gain traction, so it’s important for administrators to prepare. While pay, benefits and shared governance will be pressing issues, many institutions fail to develop or execute a strategy to communicate with employees.

To stay ahead of a unionizing campaign—which can unfold swiftly and unexpectedly—universities should consider these strategies:

Take a pulse check

How satisfied are employees? Do they have adequate channels to voice their opinions? What are the key issues?

Proactively understanding and addressing their concerns can be an effective way to keep unionizing at bay. Moreover, insights gleaned during these “pulse checks”—whether through focus groups, surveys or polls—can help inform future communications, whether or not they target unionization.

Consider all employees

First, determine what you want to achieve through communications. You should focus on three core areas:

  • articulating the university’s position on unionization in a consistent and compelling way
  • educating employees about the realities of union representation and what it will mean to them
  • reaffirming the university’s commitment to being a responsible employer

Executing such a communications campaign with these objectives can be difficult for university leaders who may have a progressive mindset and tend to sympathize with organized labor.

Additionally, this mindset is also often pervasive through the faculty leadership. A successful communications effort considers employees at all levels—not just the potential bargaining unit.

Fortify your message

Take time to crystalize your position on unionizing and what it would mean for the culture of your school. Also consider the key themes, tone and approach that will resonate most with faculty and staff.

Depending on the type of university and employee group being targeted, this could take many different forms. Cite facts, data and anecdotes to strengthen your message and block the perception that it’s just “spin.”

Sync campus strategies

Align all key internal leaders and departments around the core communications objectives. Do this early, so all parties have the opportunity to consider the approach, tone and content of messaging.

Given the complex and ever-evolving world of labor law, it is essential to coordinate closely with internal and external legal counsel throughout this process.

Pick a powerful messenger

Determine who is best suited to deliver and reinforce the message throughout the ranks. Consider who has the deepest emotional connection to employees and faculty, and who can effectively and passionately make the university’s case.

Leverage your websites

Create content that will bolster communications during a unionizing campaign. Consider developing an FAQ document, talking points, flyers, fact sheets and similar materials. Also set a central location—your existing website or a microsite, perhaps—where these materials can be referenced by faculty and employees.

Though universities and organizing campaigns differ, these strategies will help you communicate and engage with constituents during this pivotal time.

Nick Kalm is president and Courtney Harper is senior vice president at Reputation Partners, a communications consultancy that specializes in labor communications for universities and other organizations.

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