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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2007

Communications Are Paramount

By Greg Allain

I was invited recently to contribute an article to the Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations’ new newsletter, Reflections. I was glad to oblige. As I wrote in that article, internal and external communication is vital for any organization. This not only holds true for provincial federations, but also for local faculty associations.

When we think about communication, it’s often of the external variety, i.e., the links to official, outside media: newspaper, radio and TV outlets. External communication obviously has importance, both on an ongoing basis (for lobbying issues and over better funding for post-secondary education, for instance), and particularly in creating understanding during situations such as contract negotiations or strikes, since it is crucial at these moments to get our side of the story out to the general public, which happens to include politicians and government officials, our students and their families, and our colleagues.

But internal communications — communication within our local associations — play a key role as well. This is clearly the case at critical junctures, whether responding to employer arbitrariness or authoritarianism, or in making important decisions during negotiations, or when job action is taken.

Indeed, I would argue that regular communications between local executives, committee members and the general membership — downward, upward and horizontal — should be paramount in all associations, not just in times of crisis.

I would bet organizational concerns such as member apathy, which we often decry, would be alleviated by a more frequent and efficient sharing of information. If we were to conduct a statistical analysis of our various locals, I believe there would be a strong correlation between effective internal communication and an association’s vibrancy and vitality. Furthermore, I alluded in previous columns to the growing challenge of renewal within our ranks. Here also, I think regular and creative “information” would be a key tool in bringing new colleagues into our associations and getting them involved.

Just how are local associations doing, communications-wise? The short answer is not bad, but there is room for improvement, according to a 2004 survey CAUT undertook on associations’ communication practices. Let’s take a look at some of the results.

Of the 31 associations that responded to the survey, 19, or 61 per cent, said they had a newsletter (a quick look at the 48 links on the CAUT web site shows that figure appears to be up to 67 per cent now, although not all local associations are on that list). How frequently do the newsletters come out? One local answered monthly, 11 said quarterly (35 per cent), three said biannually (about 10 per cent), and 14 said they had no fixed schedule (45 per cent). So nearly half have irregular publications. In the majority of cases, a designated staff member designs the newsletter and is responsible for producing its content, which would explain why very small associations often have no newsletters to speak of, or ones whose publishing dates fluctuate.

The same pattern holds for web sites: most associations have one, but as we know, the key to a good web site is its upkeep. Only about one-quarter of the respondents said they updated their site weekly or monthly, while the majority (61 per cent) reported updating less often. The survey also showed that site design and content update was most often the responsibility of a staff member.

Two other items are worthy of note. When asked how many press releases or statements had been issued directly to the news media in the past year, almost half of the respondents to our survey said “none”; 26 per cent said “between one and three”; and 25 per cent said “more than four.” Moreover, the survey revealed that two-thirds (65 per cent) of local associations did not have a communications committee, which is somewhat surprising given the importance of communication and networking today.

I know how difficult it is within many associations to get people to serve on executive committees, bargaining committees and grievance committees, let alone “lesser” committees geared to communications or social activities (the latter being very important for the vitality of the association too!). But it can be a virtuous circle: if timely and better messages are presented to members about what their association is actually doing and the issues it faces on a daily basis, perhaps more people would be interested in joining the action and serving on a committee.

Once more, things could be a lot worse, but there is a whole range of communication activities and capabilities out there. Some associations are exemplary in their communication practices, with regular and eye-catching newsletters, engaging web sites and frequent press releases. At the other end of the continuum, other associations have outdated web sites, irregular newsletters or have not developed any communication methods. Yes, it may well boil down to a question of available human resources: but shouldn’t it first be a matter of priorities? As one respondent to our survey observed, “Our association is small but growing as we now include sessionals, so maybe we need to have a web site or newsletter to keep in touch.”

How can CAUT help? First, if any association needs contact information for their local or provincial media outlets, we can provide listings for all radio and TV stations, and daily, weekly and community newspapers in addition to alternative and cultural media outlets. David Robinson, CAUT’s associate executive director, is in charge of communications work. He would be happy to provide information and assistance to address the needs of your association.

CAUT can also accommodate longer-term communications needs through a free on-site course offering devoted to relations with the media, covering everything from developing and implementing an effective communication strategy and an integrated use of communication channels, to how to write a press release, tips on working with the news media and how to get your message across during an interview, and the dos and don’ts of keeping a web site alive and updated.

Communication is important. But true communication is more than just sharing information (although this is a key component); it’s also about keeping our associations healthy and vibrant and about building solidarity among our members.