The struggle is real but there is a way through

Jo Walters is an independent communications consultant

As a former sabbatical officer, I’ve felt the struggle of trying to achieve manifesto pledges amid all the other things going on in the union.

My time as an officer was pre-social media and Covid-free – so I can only imagine what it’s been like trying to get the message across in a period of intense scrutiny, significant pressure and when expectations on student leaders to win on priorities nobody could have predicted a year ago have been high.

A recent Wonkhe SUs piece asked why we are seeing comms conflict between staff and officers, and went on to talk about elected officers’ frustrations with their comms and marketing teams. As a communications consultant working with students’ unions and a former union communications manager it definitely generated some FEELINGS.

I’ve written a passionate defence of my union communications colleagues before, suffice to say that I felt very defensive of comms people trying to marshall everyone’s demands into some sort of coherent message – particularly during Covid.

What’s clear to me is that frustrations from officers about communications priorities may well be a symptom of a deeper problem – one of strategy, values and priorities.

I need somebody

In his article Steve Coole relayed a frustration that I know is shared among officers in students’ unions right around the country:

I don’t have anybody to help me deliver my manifesto, I don’t know how to engage students with my campaigns and no one has the time or capacity to help”.

I’ve worked with officers for a long time, I follow them on social media and I know that this is a really common issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic..

Another comment that Steve picks out is about priorities:

What’s clear is that often these struggles [of officers getting staff to work on their projects] are not born out of personality clashes or competence, but more around the focus, time and attention that officers and staff were placing on their respective priorities”.

This is interesting because it suggests that the issue might be less about communications and marketing, and more about organisational priorities more generally.

If there isn’t a clear and shared set of priorities then it’s no wonder that officers get frustrated – staff get frustrated too, and weird internal politics can take over the role of deciding who does what with what urgency. Even everyone just doing what they think is best is a recipe for disaster when that’s thirty different things, and not enough of that thirty are things that officers would prioritise.

The point is that the work of elected officers isn’t something that should be tacked on to the “usual” work of the union – it isn’t something we hold a staff meeting about at the start of the year where new officers are pushed in front of a sceptical crowd before those plans get put in a drawer for the rest of the year.

I don’t think most unions work in this way but I do know that many officers would say that they feel their staff teams don’t really understand their goals, motivations and passions.

That’s not because staff don’t care, it’s just that they are often asked to do other things (menus for the bar, voter turn-out campaigns) and there isn’t a shared understanding and sense of what the priorities should be.

And I do appreciate you being ’round

It works both ways too. I speak to lots of union comms people who are trying to juggle a billion projects from across the union – and it’s not just officers who can feel unsupported by them as a result.

I know people who’ve been told by officers that their project is more important than other activities which are needed to sustain revenue and participation in other areas. Maybe those things aren’t important – but it seems wrong that a single staff member is discussing that with an officer on an ad hoc basis when those things ought to be bigger, more deliberate conversations.

Truly involving officers in this sort of decision-making, rather than just sporadically thrusting a list of projects at them and asking them to pick the top three that will get shiny posters, would reduce friction and help them see the bigger picture of what is going on.

I never needed anybody’s help in any way

One of the things that is clear is that professional staff may find working with elected student leaders hard. It can be a culture shock for people who haven’t worked in students’ unions before, but something I see a lot that generates confusion is the “what gets measured gets managed” trap.

Often, the “machine” of the union is built around things that it’s easy to see and measure – and not the sometimes less tangible aspects of officer lobbying and campaigning. It’s clearly important that our commercial services bring in enough revenue, and that’s not something that can be reprioritised overnight, but ow many staff appraisals or management meetings focus on bar wastage, shop sales, sports club membership numbers, TOTUM sales or website visits?

How many focus on officer goals, student feedback, student committee actions and other student and officer led activities? Who is at those meetings? How much do staff know about what officers are doing or is that democracy stuff just something that goes on in parallel to the normal functioning of the union?

Lots of the professionals that come to unions from “outside” are more used to reporting on KPIs and metrics like social media engagement in comms, or doing things that are considered best practice within their industry. If officers aren’t into that or they can’t see the value and they have their own ideas then we should listen to them. We’d like them to listen to our expertise and experience and their ideas might seem terrible to us, but we have to see that helping them be amazing officers is part of our job and what makes something successful.

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

From time to time, unions put out good comms work that would never be deemed “good” in other environments. Comms professionals might feel that the message isn’t clear or the audience isn’t clearly defined – but the important thing is that the officers involved are happy with it.

Doing “good” comms and keeping officers happy are not automatically mutually exclusive concepts, and like any staff members in democratic environments we have to balance giving our professional advice with empowering officers to make decisions – but we also have to adjust our criteria for success.

And in the end that’s about culture. We need to help staff at all levels of a students’ union feel and see that supporting officers is part of everyone’s job – not just women staff members who are often disproportionately doing the (often additional and unpaid) work of being a literal and metaphorical shoulder for officers to cry on. Supporting officers also shouldn’t be only for those with democracy in their job title, and not just once a year.

The solutions lie in that clear and shared understanding across the organisation:

  • What are our priorities this year? How do they foreground officer and student priorities? How do they flow down into departmental and staff plans?
  • How are we deciding these things together so people feel heard and they understand the collective benefits of any compromises needed?
  • How are we enabling officers to achieve their goals? How do we provide practical and moral support?
  • How, as staff, are we positioning the work of officers and students as central to, not a distraction from, our ‘normal’ jobs?
  • How are we defining success in our work? Does that include how much we’ve included officers and students? Does it include their perspective on things? How do we recruit, train and reward staff for that?

With a collective sense of purpose, and practical support for officers’ goals, we won’t need to have random frustrating conversations about whether project X is more important than meeting Y. We’d just know, respect each other and get on with it.

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