In an age of digital communications, local associations are evolving to meet the needs of their members

By Matt Stagliano

 

Communicating with union members in a digital era

Social media is changing the world around us. It’s changed how people stay in touch, how they argue, and, many believe, it’s even contributing to the increasing polarization of American politics. With a president whose Twitter account garners more attention than any of his predecessors’, it’s hard not to feel the increasing influence that social media has on public opinion.

Politics aside, social media has affected how nearly everyone communicates. Facebook, for example, has more than 2 billion daily users worldwide. Those users—some fake, but most real—generate more than 4.75 billion pieces of content, which includes photos, videos, website links and status updates, every single day. With more than 58 percent of American adults active on Facebook alone, it’s hard to deny the evolution of communication.

With an increase in social media users, and an ever-evolving social media landscape, many teachers have little choice but to learn the ins and outs of new platforms to help their students navigate this complex world. For teachers, student safety drives the infusion of proper online etiquette into traditional curriculum. Some educators see social media as a powerful tool that students can harness for their own academic growth. And, as more and more educators find themselves active on social media, many local associations find themselves active on social media platforms as well.

Digital organizing, driven by members

Of those local education associations around the state that have gone digital, most have done so to meet the needs of their members. Members are bombarded by emails and feel a sense of email fatigue. They are sifting through too many meaningless emails to find relevant, pertinent information.

As emails overload gets worse, some local leaders around the state saw an opportunity to engage their members in a new, more relevant way. Rather than sending emails, some locals have chosen to create Facebook groups that allow members to exchange thoughts, ideas and happenings of their local unions. The Hopewell Valley Education Association created a Facebook group last year to enhance communication within the association.

“Through the course of the day, we get so many emails that things get buried,” says Lisa Cardinale, vice president of HVEA, who now helps manage a robust Facebook group that successfully helps coordinate local and state level political action and members organizing activities. “But, on Facebook, it’s different. They are looking at content when they choose to, when they have the time, not when they have too much to do and not enough time.”

Unlike email and more traditional means of communications, such as fliers and memos, which historically have been about one-way communication from association leaders to members, social media platforms such as Facebook allow unions to deepen their connection by seamlessly enabling union members across a district to share their successes and challenges. For those locals engaged in digital organizing, social media offers a place for members to connect and build relationships with one another, strengthening the collective power of the association.

“Traditionally, there was a newsletter that used to come out, but by the time you read it, the information was outdated,” says Eric Jones, president of Plainfield Education Association (PEA). “It was great information, but it was not meeting the needs of our members and it certainly wasn’t building community. It was very top down, leaders to members.”

Plainfield’s association Facebook group, Inside PEA, has grown into a place for members to come together and share ownership of keeping each other informed.

“It wasn’t only the leaders of the association telling members what they needed to know, it was members sharing information and questions that they felt were important,” Jones said as he discussed how the Facebook group has brought forth a change in PEA. “Members would share concerns and suggestions. Ideas formed from building to building and member to member. For me, building community comes down to building relationships among people. In Plainfield, we’ve knocked down the walls of where we work. We use Facebook to build relationships, build community and talk about shared experiences.”

Community engagement

Beyond members, social media offers many avenues to engage the community. Local associations are beginning to leverage the positive public relations power of being present online.

The Cherry Hill Education Association (CHEA) represents more than 1,000 union members across one of South Jersey’s most densely populated suburban towns. The local understood most parents of school-aged children didn’t fully comprehend the lengths that CHEA members went to for their children each day, so it started a Facebook page as a means for the association to tell its story directly to the community.

CHEA established its first Facebook page one year ago. Within the first week of the new year, CHEA saw its total fans or “likes” surpass the 1,000-user mark. Steve Redfearn, president of  CHEA, is the driving force behind the Facebook page, but he doesn’t do all the work. Sometimes he shares content the school district or police department puts out, often he posts pictures his colleagues send from across the sprawling suburban district. He notes content highlighting the success of children always performs the best.

“We get likes and comments on posts about snow days or district information, but we always get a ton of likes, comments and shares when we start talking about the success of sports team or a district school choir. When parents see their children, or children they know, being celebrated online, they can’t help but enjoy it. It should be enjoyed because it’s one small sample of so many great things happening in our school district.”

Redfearn emphasized that the reach of the association’s page went well beyond its members.

“It’s our members and community members,” he said. “There are freeholders and town council members that follow us. And sometimes other local groups will share information that we put out. This always opens more connections for us. It’s been very successful and positive for us in terms of getting our story out there.”

A bit further north, the Lakewood Education Association (LEA) has expanded into the digital world to help drive change when faced with challenges. LEA’s Facebook page is used to communicate accurate information fast, which increases member buy-in. In doing so, the page has brought members together and helped unite the membership during a time of crisis.

“When we faced a crisis last year, social media helped unite us,” explains Leilanie Small, webmaster of the LEA. “It helped us spread information quickly and efficiently. Through social media, we were able to stay united. It also increased morale during that time, too. If a school got a grant or had an overall increase in reading level, we would put that on social media and people wanted to share that good news with their friends.”

Creating common spaces

The Monroe Township Education Association (MTEA) in Gloucester County has taken a unique approach to its use of social media. MTEA uses a Facebook group to communicate with members of the public, as well its members. The association has created a shared space for members of the association to come together with members of the community.

Jon Woodward, a building rep for MTEA and an Administrator of the Facebook group, Monroe Township Cares About Kids, explained how the online group helped build relationships between parents and members.

Woodward realized what so many know: parents want to know what’s happening in their schools and they support the staff making their schools successful. However, all too often, they lack an open line of communication with the staff.

“It’s a very positive page,” Woodward says. “We don’t post negative content on there. Our president, a few other members, and I are moderators on the page, and we control the content of what gets posted. We like to make sure it’s positive, without being overly controlling.”

Woodward noted that the use of social media has fostered positive interaction between Monroe Township residents and the association.

“We engage the community with our job actions and explain to them what we’re doing,” Woodward explains. “We’ve used this to help get residents at our board meetings and rallies and to help us settle contracts.”

Woodward and the MTEA changed the game for their members and their community.When the association created a common space for educators and community members, it opened up a new world of communication. Parents could show their support and learn about all of the things educators do every day. Woodward attributes most of the success of his page to the commitment from his fellow MTEA members and a few dedicated advocates from the community.

Potential outweighs challenges

Social media presents its own set of challenges and opportunities. Some local associations are concerned about the oversharing of information. Other locals are worried that their members might post something without thinking; educators, after all, are human beings, despite their many superhero-like qualities. And, in truth, some local associations have had problematic situations as they have embarked into a new digital space for organizing and connecting. But, despite all the challenges, the potential to influence change and build connections via social media far outweigh the risks.

“Everyone at first was hesitant to use Facebook,” Small noted. “I’ve had to work with many people about how to use Facebook for this type of association communication. But once our page became more popular, members realized how fast they could get information. People’s minds started to change. It only took a couple of months.”

Last year, social media, with its ability to facilitate the education of the community at-large, played a major role in helping some local associations resolve major crises. Social media has contributed to the settlement of contacts in many local associations, saved would-be-privatized jobs and ensured that schools maintain health and safety standards for their staff and students.

Making it your own

Given the broad nature and almost endless possibilities for creativity on social media, locals have found success in a wide variety of ways. Local associations have created Facebook pages, Facebook groups, Instagram accounts and Twitter handles. Each local association active on social media develops a unique voice that works for their local and their membership.

Kim Welsh, the webmaster of the Point Pleasant  Borough Education Association has enjoyed success on the Facebook-owned photo-sharing site, Instagram.

“Instagram is really fun,” Welsh said. “We put anything we can up there because the pictures get their attention.”

There is no one-size-fits-all model for success on social media. Locals have used a variety of strategies to reach the same goal: more communication with their members. And, while it’s impossible to quantify all the ways that local associations are effectively using social media, it’s certainly worth exploring. After all, local associations are made up of educators whose professional practice is always evolving; communicating with members we represent should be no different.

“As a teacher, I can either teach in a way that is comfortable for me, or I can teach the way my students are comfortable learning, says Jones. “As a leader, with every day and every new hire, I think more and more people are likely to be on active social media. If we don’t go to where our members are to engage them, we lose them. For our members who are more comfortable with more traditional communications, we must keep those traditions in place. But, we must continue to let all of our members drive our leadership instead of letting our leadership drive our members.”

Matt Stagliano is an associate director in the NJEA Communications Division. He can be reached at mstagliano@njea.org.


Meet Inside PEA

By Plainfield EA President Eric Jones

When Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc upon Plainfield in late 2012, it wasn’t the district that first notified employees of emergency closings—it was Inside PEA.

Because of the storm, the district’s technology was down, so the medium to contact its employees was compromised.  Fortunately, about one year earlier, a communication tool was established by and for association members that didn’t need district approval. 

Six years ago, a small group of Plainfield district employees created an electronic chat room on Facebook designed to be a “digital staff lounge” for association members.  It didn’t matter the position or worksite, if the employee was a dues-paying member, he or she could be a member of the page. 

The room has become “the daily home” to approximately four hundred members and served as a go-to site for all things district and union related.  While our association still provides a standard newsletter, we encourage our members to join the digital page where they can receive information in real-time.

“Simply said, it’s my go-to,” shared art teacher Carol Swiss-Petach. “It has the most relevant and up-to-date information. It’s much faster than waiting for other sources to notify us. If it’s not posted and I have a question, between all the members reading, somebody has the answer.”

As the local leader, I’m fortunate to have members who have embraced technology to enhance our communication.  Posts aren’t limited to officers.  Any member can post, “like,” and comment on a question or concern from anyone.  It truly has created a family atmosphere from colleagues across our nineteen worksites. 

Inside PEA has significantly increased member engagement in our local, and it is an honor to provide this service to our members.

 

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