Teachers union must soften message, comms leaders say

CHICAGO: The Chicago Teachers Union should soften its rhetoric about the ongoing teachers strike to clarify its message with a public becoming increasingly divided, public affairs experts told PRWeek.

CHICAGO: The Chicago Teachers Union should soften its rhetoric about the ongoing teachers strike to clarify its message with a public becoming increasingly divided, public affairs experts told PRWeek.

The strike entered its third day on Wednesday, with no sign of a resolution near. Union leaders and public school administrators in the nation's third-largest school district were set to resume negotiations at 11am Central time Wednesday.    

Many people in Chicago are growing frustrated with the strike as 350,000 students are missing school, and some communications professionals said the union needs to tone down its message to appeal to the general public.

“The person delivering the message from the union, [Chicago Teachers Union] president Karen Lewis, is turning some people off. Their approach is abrasive and they may need to soften their image a bit,” said Kim Morreale, president of Morreale Public Affairs Group in Chicago. “The feedback I'm getting is that some people are getting disconnected from the teachers, and the union's message delivery is not necessarily working in their favor.”

The union faces a communications challenge because it is speaking to two different audiences, union members and average citizens, said Carolyn Grisko, president of Chicago-based communications firm Carolyn Grisko & Associates.

“It used to be that you could go behind closed doors with union members, deliver a rousing speech, then come out and do a press conference where you sounded more moderate and conciliatory. But in these days of instantaneous communications, nothing really happens behind closed doors,” Grisko said. “[Lewis] is very feisty, and she has done a great job [communicating] with the union membership, but when she talks to the public I think it's time to drop the rhetoric down a bit.”

The various issues behind the strike could be difficult to explain clearly, and much of the union's message is getting diluted, Grisko and others said.

Teachers and school administrators are disputing a new teacher evaluation system based on students' standardized test scores, job security for laid-off instructors, salary and benefits, and a longer school day. Yet much of the media's focus has been paid to the district's offer to give teachers a 16% raise over four years, communications leaders said. The proposed raise would double an 8% offer made earlier in the negotiations.

“The union has not been able to agree to [the raise], but most Americans would welcome that,” said Deb Fiddelke, EVP of the public affairs practice at Edelman Chicago. “When a 16% raise has been offered, it's hard for people to understand why their kids aren't in school.”

The Chicago Teachers Union has been communicating with the community primarily through public demonstrations and the media, Grisko and Morreale said. On Wednesday morning, Grisko said she saw a demonstration where teachers and parents had gathered wearing T-shirts that read, “We support our teachers,” and asking passersby to honk their cars in support. Though the picketing caused traffic congestion, many cars were honking in response, she said.

“[The union] has been really disciplined about communicating actively, and they have met with a lot of solidarity,” she said.

Morreale said she had seen some Chicago homes with yard signs that read “Proud union home.” A telephone poll conducted Monday by the Chicago Sun-Times found that 47% of respondents supported the teachers union, 39% opposed the strike, and the rest were undecided.

Historically, Illinois has been a pro-union state, Morreale explained, yet in some areas, public support is beginning to wane. The outcome of the teachers strike will have larger implications for unions nationwide, she added.

“The unions are starting to lose some momentum because the average person is out there and they're unemployed,” Morreale said. “The union has to decide how hard they can push, and when it is time to say when. That's a delicate balance to figure out.”

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