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How to get your union’s message into the mainstream media

“Unions must become more aware of workers issues beyond borders, so that we can build a global society which practices equality and dignity for all not just for the few.”

Terry Bell is a South Africa-based journalist, commentator and author with more than 50 years of experience reporting on political and economic analysis and labour issues. He was a guest at IndustriALL’s communications training workshop in Cape Town in December 2017. Terry spoke to IndustriALL about effective communication and how unions can get their message into mainstream media.

Unions in Africa struggle to get their message out to mainstream media. Do you have any advice for them?

“Unions are not communicating enough internally. There has been too much energy put into communicating with outside media. There is also a lack of skill and training among communicators, many unions don’t use full-time or trained communicators, often the general secretary or president of the union will make an announcement or write a grammatically badly phrased press release.

“There is a need for professional communicators who are skilled and who understand the sector that they work in, but above all else who understand the principals of trade unionism.”

What sort of media should we be using, radio, print and television or social media?

“In Africa we are talking primarily about radio because it is the most widely heard, then print media to a certain degree in some areas but once again it depends on the audience that you are trying to reach.

“You must also be well aware of what language you are using in any specific area. It is significant in South Africa for example among all the trade union websites I have only found one that uses more than one language yet we have 11 official languages here. So with some of the languages being mutually understood you can use at least 3 languages and get to the majority of the population, so one has to think in terms of language.”

What is an effective way to reach the mainstream media?

“I think that there is nothing better than rapport with the individual journalist, admittedly it is more difficult these days because there has been a lot of cost cutting in the print and digital media right across the board.

“You also have a lot of people who are under a tremendous pressure who are often very young and often poorly paid, who are having to produce a lot of material. But it is vitally important that the union communicators make contact with these journalists on a personal level to understand and trust one another, because they are both workers after all.”

What message should unions have for society?

“The benefit of the union to workers as a whole. I tend to use the term “sellers of labour”. You will sometimes have a journalist or someone who works in a bank say “oh I’m not a worker, I’m white collar therefore professional.” No, anyone who is a seller of labour – and that has to be stressed –  has a common interest. The overwhelming majority of the population in any community, country and throughout the world are workers and this has to be the first point that is stressed by unions.

“In South Africa, for example, we have the Bill of Rights which is a fantastic document says that the “dignity of all shall be cherished”. Unions must make it clear that an egalitarian society is a better society, this has to be stressed as the underlying principle.”

“Unions shouldn’t simply go into a wage dispute and say we want this amount of money, but rather point out how much people are earning in proportion to others, who is being paid what and the inequality between CEO earnings and workers’ earnings.”

“Unions must have a more global perspective, we have to make unions aware of what is going on elsewhere. Unions is South Africa should know immediately about what happened at Rana Plaza where a building collapsed killing 1,135 people. Unions must become more aware of workers issues beyond borders, so that we can build a global society which practices equality and dignity for all not just for the few.”


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