Pay very, very close attention to what’s going on at CBC Unplugged. If you’re active in the field of labour relations, that site may just be a crystal ball into your future.

It’s the latest project from locked-out CBC producer Tod Maffin (whose name appears so often on these pages partly because he’s produced my pieces from time to time, but mainly because he’s doing such fascinating stuff). At one level, it’s a blog aggregating the voices of CBC employees… and, admirably, CBC management as well:

And, since some people have asked, this is my own personal blog. I’m trying to provide balanced coverage. This site is not a production of either the CBC or the CMG.

But CBC Unplugged is also the home for a wide range of podcasts by CBC staffers — and ground zero for a revolution in bargaining communications.

Studio Zero is one such venue for all that sidelined CBC talent to carry on their craft, communicating on behalf of the employees. The result is a well produced, engaging show with a lot of familiar voices.

The show isn’t limited to the Internet. A number of independent, co-op and campus radio stations are broadcasting Studio Zero as well. And between the podcasts and broadcasts, the employees’ message is reaching a lot of ears. Tod reports:

The CBCunplugged.com podcast feed is now among the top-ten of all podcasts in Canada (iTunes.com). In one day, nearly a thousand people downloaded the Vancouver podcast by clicking from my site alone. This does not include the people subscribed on the feed or who downloaded from the CMG site. Today, 6,253 ���unique visitors��� visited the blog -��� about a third were returning visitors. I have never seen traffic like this.

Here are two interesting things about all of this.

One: These employees have realized just how central they are to the CBC’s brand. The individual on-air personalities, the recording expertise, the production prowess — they’re all key to the distinctive CBC sound, not to mention the quality of CBC’s programming. Obviously the union doesn’t have the kind of resources the corporation has, but if the lockout persists, and sponsors start lining up, Studio Zero could have real legs… and might well outlive the dispute that spawned it. Other unions may well look to this experience to see ways where they, too, could supplant the employer in case of a lockout or strike.

And two: this isn’t an official union production. The Canadian Media Guild certainly isn’t unhappy about it, and is allowing members to apply time spent on Studio Zero against their picket line duty. But the content isn’t vetted beforehand, and not every minute is on-message; one streeter includes a comment from someone who’s perfectly happy with the CBC’s current management-only programming.

For that matter, Tod’s site feed includes comments from CBC management, a link to the corporation’s e-mail newsletter on the lockout, and criticism of both sides:

To get this thing resolved and put the programming you’re used to back on the air, we need your help. Both sides need to get back to the table. Both sides claim they would if they other will. It’s silly. It reminds me of grade three.

What does all of this mean for labour communicators?

For one thing, while management will continue to have the luxury of speaking with a single voice, that may prove increasingly difficult for unions. Individual members will increasingly use blogs and other forums to publicly express their views on bargaining strategy, lockouts and strikes, and not all of them will be working from talking points. (A group of Radio-Canada employees have already started their own French-language podcast; the first episode is available here. And it’s not just audio. An Edmonton CBC host is presenting Lockout Blues, a video report
on the lockout.)

In high-profile situations, the media will be looking for deviations from the union line, and their initial impulse will be to report them as a sign of division — an interpretation management will be happy to encourage and exploit. Antagonistic reporters and commentators will also scour those blogs for inflammatory rhetoric they can use to characterize the union as extremist and unreasonable. Unions will face constant demands to issue condemnations, clarifications and rebuttals; if they accede, they’ll be on the defensive and off message. That’s new and difficult terrain to navigate…

…but exciting terrain, too. Here are just a few reasons why this is good news for labour communicators and unions:

  1. This new environment will put a premium on engaging honestly and constantly with members and activists — which effective unions already know how to do well. That, in turn, will help them develop messages and strategies that resonate more powerfully with members, and strengthen the union’s voice with broader audiences.
  2. For some members who have felt uncomfortable speaking up in traditional settings — those who are intimidated by public speaking, for example — blogging offers an appealing route into involvement with union issues. So does participating through comments in blogs set up by other members. And participating in that kind of discussion is a step closer to more active participation in the union itself.
  3. Let a million flowers bloom. Of course there will be disagreement; the democratic nature of the labour movement is one of its greatest strengths and its strongest appeal. There will also be plenty of members who want to blog about their agreement with the union’s position — and they can do so with a level of personal authenticity that management can only dream of.
  4. There is a growing broader public within the blogging world, one that is suspicious of institutional voices but open to talking and listening to individuals. Your members’ blogs can be a key channel to that audience.
  5. Member blogs provide one more way for the union leadership to engage with members. Joining conversations in comment areas will require a certain amount of judiciousness, but can be very fruitful — not just in responding to member concerns, but in gaining a richer sense of some members’ opinions and ideas.

As the reach of blogging grows, organizations’ communications efforts will soon look less like a seamless gleaming whole, and more like an atom — a tightly bound nucleus of disciplined messaging at the centre, surrounded by a diffuse cloud of electrons: members, supporters and activists, all communicating in their own (sometimes conflicting) ways.

But don’t think for a moment that means abandoning the strengths of a traditional communications strategy. A compelling message, careful research, a well-defined audience, a clear goal, the right vehicles — if anything, these become even more important to ensuring a strong, clear voice for working people and the organizations they create.

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