Are SUs telling students about their rights?

For me being tagged in a conversation on Twitter is a bit like being asked to stay behind class at school or pop in to see your manager: it could be about anything but you presume the worst.

In the most recent case it was a conversation about a perceived absence of information about students’ rights in the Twitter feeds of students’ unions. I was presumably tagged because I’ve been working in students’ union communications for a while, host an annual conference for students’ union communications people and have recently launched a freelance venture providing marketing and communications consultancy, training and delivery for students’ unions and other small organisations. Maybe they just wanted me to contribute my expert level gif selection skills. I didn’t think to check.

The tweet that started the thread simply said:

Puzzle. Why do so few SU twitter accounts tweet about the issues they’re representing students on, or their rights? It’s all people and process but no… stuff. Odd.”

This initially felt like I was being told off on behalf of everyone working in students’ union communications and marketing. That obviously wasn’t the intention, but my instinct to defend my favourite strand of a sector I love kicked in – and my first thoughts were to point out all the reasons why unions might not tweet about student representation and students’ rights.

After I decided, wisely, that a rambling late-night Twitter thread of apparent excuses wasn’t the most coherent or constructive way to approach the topic. I took some time to reflect and realised that the original tweet and many of the subsequent answers contained some assumptions; that unions should share information about students’ rights, that this should happen on Twitter, that this would be easy and that it isn’t currently happening.

Student rights?

The first assumption in this conversation was that students’ unions should be talking about representing students and their rights.

Citizens Advice and MoneySavingExpert were cited as examples of organisations that are doing this well on Twitter. Citizens Advice in particular effectively mix proactive posts about things like your right to be paid for holiday you’re entitled to but haven’t taken if you leave during the year with reactive content about topical issues such as companies that have gone into administration.

It’s probably fairly uncontroversial that sharing this sort of information is a good thing (or at least, not a bad thing).

Are students’ unions doing this?

Yep. Not all of them all the time (and I haven’t checked all their accounts) but I’m sure that they’ve all posted about things like support if you’re accused of plagiarism, want to appeal your exam results or have an issue with university accommodation.

Beyond their rights at their institutions, unions post about students’ rights in privately rented accommodation and during employment. More broadly again, they’re involved in increasing voter registration and getting out the student vote. I’m confident that unions are talking about students’ rights. Again, not all the time but that’s part of the challenge of coordinating a union’s public communications output.

Could they doing it more and/or more effectively? Probably, but people working in students’ unions communications know that wanting to do this isn’t as easy as flinging out a few tweets reminding people they are entitled to meet their personal tutor X times a month.

Why might it not be happening?

There’s a lot to talk about: A major challenge is the sheer number and variety of ‘things’ students’ unions do. I used to take a whiteboard to meetings to write down all the things happening in a given week that needed to be promoted, commented on, defended or mentioned because it took so long to write up my notes each week.

A typical week could include multiple events every day (run by the union, in their spaces or major club and society events), campaign launches, key union or university meetings, messages linked to external things like Black History Month or internal activities like graduation, recruiting volunteers and/or staff, changes to shop opening times.

That’s just the stuff we wanted to talk to students about. Add in content on things students want to talk about, some sponsored content that brings in much needed revenue, fun content that helps with social media algorithms (yes those cat gifs are strategic!), university messages you’re helping distribute and that’s all before the week actually starts and you get all the surprise press coverage, unanticipated university announcements or whatever else happens to throw your plans out of the window and there is a LOT to talk about covering a LOT of topics. It also means that when you glance at a Twitter feed there might be 25 tweets to scroll past before you get to a “rightsy” one.

Compare that to Citizens Advice or charities like Shelter. They still have enormous portfolios but they’re generally more focused and/or have a stronger common theme. Some unions have tried setting up different accounts for different topics, e.g. advice, sport or volunteering, with varying success. My current view is that it is hard to cut through the noise on social media and that their algorithms make building and sustaining an interested audience harder.

Those pesky algorithms: SUs often try to use their topic mix to their advantage – come for the shop discounts, stay for the excellent advice? – but that can leave accounts swinging from one topic to another without a coherent feel. Posts on topics that don’t generate much engagement typically have a negative impact on the visibility of subsequent posts so this can be a risky approach.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram want to show you content that you’ll find relevant so they use a number of (secret) data points to decide what to show you in your feed. On Facebook in particular this has meant that posts from pages (the format most unions use) appear less in your feed

There’s definitely a feeling among some students’ union communications professionals that there are “easier” topics to post about on social media. Colourful, fun and popular things like pizza deals (an example mentioned in the Twitter thread on this topic as a ‘bad’ thing that unions like to post about instead of ‘good’ things like students’ rights), photos from the Freshers Ball and memes about Eduroam get lots of interaction. Content about regulations, procedures and university committees, not so much.

On a more practical note, it can be hard to talk about individual cases the union has been involved in. You want to retain enough detail to make the issue resonate with students as relevant but obviously don’t want to breach the confidentiality of those involved.

These things are hard, but not impossible. I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses on behalf of people working in students’ union communications. They’re a hard-working and very smart bunch who typically have very long to do lists and high expectations placed on them by colleagues.

There might be better ways: I opened by saying that it was probably correct that unions should be tweeting about students’ rights. This is a great example of a student officer doing just that. That said, tweeting “you have the right to X” or “the union has been working on Y issue” doesn’t necessarily translate into students knowing more about their rights or, more importantly, being able or empowered to use their rights.

There might be other, more effective ways, to inform and empower students. Hopefully the union is doing this but it can sometimes be hard to judge unless you’re a student affected by the issue.

For example, perhaps the most effective way to increase take-up of representation and support with student disciplinary cases is to get your institution to include clear information about this in the email that students get if they’re accused of misconduct? That’s a super relevant, targeted, actionable piece of information delivered at the right time, to the right people when they are probably most receptive to it. A random tweet on a Tuesday afternoon isn’t. Even if a student sees that tweet, how likely are they to remember it in a stressful situation when it could really count?

A tweet is just a tactic, having a meaningful strategy based on your goals is more effective. Maybe union staff and officers are working directly (IRL as the kids would say) with student groups and societies most affected by a particular issue? Maybe the support they give their student media groups enable them to investigate and publish stories about where the university has fallen short of what it should be doing? Perhaps officers are out talking to students on their campuses and in their halls of residence and organising offline?

People are quick to criticise people for “clicktivism” but often there is a lot going on off the internet. These tactics may also be working on the structural and cultural barriers that may be limiting students’ ability to exercise their rights. Knowing you have a particular right doesn’t stop things like power inequalities and bias existing; it’ll take more than a tweet to empower all students.

Additionally, many unions find their audiences are more receptive on other platforms beyond Twitter. Instagram (particularly their stories function) is often given as an example of where unions and their officers are able to post updates that reach more people and/or get better responses.

Unions often focus their efforts on preventative measures, e.g. how to avoid stress, how to reference your work correctly so you don’t plagiarise. These often come with a mention of your rights if your work is affected by stress or you’re accused of plagiarism but that isn’t always the headline (and I think that’s often fine).

Internal politics: One suggestion on Twitter was that unions are reluctant to tweet about students’ rights as they don’t want to make their parent institutions look bad. I can’t say that’s true from my personal experience but perhaps it is an issue at some universities. It’s true that the relationship between an organisation and its principal funder can be an awkward diplomatic shuffle when it comes to biting the hand that feeds you.

Proactively pointing out what students are entitled to and where officers are working to improve things to students though is different to throwing a Twitter tantrum and unnecessarily aggressively criticising your parent organisation. That said, if they’re doing something they shouldn’t then surely it’s the union’s role to point that out?

There can also be tensions within unions about who is allowed to post about what and where. Some organisations have completely centralised communications teams who are the only ones with access to post online. Others have devolved this out across the organisation with lots floating somewhere in between the two extremes.

This can mean that control over the topics that a union appears to be talking about can be largely out of the hands of those with the skill to do this well or those who know most about the topic (as these are often two separate groups of people). Unions with centralised communications teams often find it hard to get timely information from the staff and officers involved in representation work (who are busy doing the ‘doing’) and unions with devolved communications can struggle to adequately train and support front-line staff to deliver effective communications.

Striking a balance

Either way round, everyone is very busy doing good things and sharing it with people beyond the organisation isn’t always seen as a priority. Obviously that may well be counter-productive and short-sighted in some ways but it is a reality for many unions who may want to revisit their goals and strategy and check the balance between doing and telling.

Alongside this are questions of who makes the bigger strategic decisions about what is shared. If an organisation’s priorities and KPIs are around bar revenue, sports club memberships or discount card sales then it is likely those topics will dominate their communications channels. What gets measured gets managed and often it’s also what gets communicated.

One response to “Are SUs telling students about their rights?

  1. Internal politics can make an SU reticent to celebrate their successes.

    My SU were 100% dependent upon a block grant from the University. In such circumstances you cease to have any institutional autonomy and it becomes quite difficult to speak truth to power. At least in my experience.

    I “joined the dark side” for an extra £13k pa [sorry – everyone has a price] and the biggest surprise was that suddenly I had lots more institutional credibility.

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