ANALYSIS: Client Profile - AFL-CIO owes image to organized PR effort

Say the word 'union' and many people think of paunchy, old white guys in dark suits mouthing Damon Runyonspeak. This is just the image that Denise Mitchell, assistant to the president for public affairs at the AFL-CIO, has spent the last five years trying to dispel in order to secure labor's survival in a digitally driven economy.

Say the word 'union' and many people think of paunchy, old white guys in dark suits mouthing Damon Runyonspeak. This is just the image that Denise Mitchell, assistant to the president for public affairs at the AFL-CIO, has spent the last five years trying to dispel in order to secure labor's survival in a digitally driven economy.

Say the word 'union' and many people think of paunchy, old white guys in dark suits mouthing Damon Runyonspeak. This is just the image that Denise Mitchell, assistant to the president for public affairs at the AFL-CIO, has spent the last five years trying to dispel in order to secure labor's survival in a digitally driven economy.

By the mid 1990s, the AFL-CIO - which supports member unions but does not directly organize workers - had experienced a decline in status due to falling union membership during much of the 1980s and early 1990s.

While the organization's communications people did attempt to turn things around, then-president Lane Kirkland was considered 'mediaphobic,' which made things difficult.



Enter John Sweeney

When John Sweeney won the presidency in 1995, Mitchell came with him and set out to stabilize the AFL-CIO's image; she is credited with turning its information department into a modern public affairs unit.

For starters, Mitchell, in keeping with Sweeney's insistence not just on revitalizing the organization but on becoming more visible and vocal, brought the AFL-CIO's independent speechwriting and broadcast operations under her jurisdiction and placed more emphasis on media outreach.

Today, much of the work done by Mitchell's department involves advocacy.

She says it's important to reach out to non-members in working families and to convince them that the labor movement is not about its leaders but about representing the needs of working families. 'It's crucial to put a worker face on the labor movement,' she says.

Gone is the biweekly tabloid that dutifully reported news for union members.

Replacing it is America@Work, an edgy, eye-catching magazine that provides 'ideas, info and ammo' for union activists and organizers.

Its photographs showcase a rank and file that's diverse in terms of race and gender, working in occupations ranging from school teachers to steelworkers.

Features emphasize the importance of organizing workers, taking political action and raising the minimum wage, among other things.

'America@Work is a welcome 21st century publication that is in tune with the times ... and presents labor in a positive, upbeat fashion,' says Arthur Shostak, professor of Sociology at Drexel University and author of several books on American unionism. Not all agree, however. One labor critic compared its style to a magazine aimed at college kids.

The AFL-CIO is also banking on the Internet because of the statement it makes about labor's relevancy as an institution in a nation going digital.

Last fall, while trying to reach a settlement over contracts with national advertisers' associations, the AFL-CIO teamed with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) to launch a Web-driven boycott of Procter & Gamble products. Banner ads and streaming video on AFL-CIO sites featured appeals by actors and actresses to rally support for the boycott.

The AFL-CIO and its member unions sent out 15,000 e-mail appeals for support to members, generating 40,000 e-mails to corporate targets expressing support for the SAG and AFTRA. P&G chairman John Pepper later asked the AFL-CIO to make sure information about the boycott was removed from the site, a sign the strategists see as proof that their e-effort had an impact.

Robert Fox directs the AFL-CIO's workingfamilies.com program, which gives union members substantial discounts on IBM computers, as well as low-cost Internet service.

Fox started marketing the program a few months ago and says the AFL-CIO views it as an emerging, cost-effective communications vehicle. However, he won't say how many people have used the service or bought computers.



Sharing and comparing

Mitchell says she is preparing to more closely link the AFL-CIO's publications division - which oversees Web communications - with its broadcast unit because the boundary lines between the two are becoming hard to distinguish.

'Often broadcast will adapt what they have produced for the Web,' she explains.

Already, there have been projects for which AFL-CIO Web editor Tom Matzzie and the broadcast division have collaborated. For Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday this year, thanks to broadcast, the Web featured streaming video highlighting the civil rights leader's views on unionism. A short story also ran in Work In Progress, a weekly 'newsfax' produced by the publications division.



So is the AFL-CIO's communications effort succeeding?

Rutgers University economics professor Leo Troy, a critic, asserts there has been 'more show than substance' to the AFL-CIO under Sweeney because unions represented just 13.5% of waged and salaried workers in 2000. During the early 1950s when organized labor was in its heyday, more than a third of all waged and salaried workers belonged to a union. He argues that the AFL-CIO has largely failed to boost membership in the 66 unions it represents.

Village Voice labor reporter Bob Fitch, who has a friendlier attitude toward unionism, warns that 'ultimately labor will not survive on press releases.' Instead, he says, it must consistently post membership gains.

Organizing is an arduous task, but the AFL-CIO thinks the public affairs division is making the climate more conducive to gaining new members.

Pollster Guy Molyneux of Hart Research sees it differently. His firm conducts survey research for the AFL-CIO and thinks there is 'some measurable success' in improving the image of unionism.

Hart's research showed that there has been an increase in the number of people who would support a union in the workplace. In 1993, he found that 39% of nonrepresented workers would support a union in their workplace, while 52% would oppose one. By 1999, the percentage of workers for unionization had grown to 43%.

Molyneux, like many union officials, thinks the benefits of good PR will be harvested later, suggesting that the collapse of dot-coms will lead Generation Xers to see unionism, not stock options, as essential to their economic well-being.

But the Bush presidency means that this is the first time since taking the helm of the AFL-CIO that Sweeney will confront a Republican administration's historically opposing outlook on labor and its agenda. This brings peril but also opportunity says author Shostak. He asserts, 'Labor does best when its back is to the wall.'



AFL-CIO PUBLIC AFFAIRS MANAGEMENT TEAM

Assistant to the president for public affairs: Denise Mitchell

Director of working-families.com: Robert Fox

Publications division director (soon to be deputy for public affairs): Donna Jablonski

America@Work editor: Tula Connell

Web editor: Thomas Matzzie

Deputy for media outreach and community: to be appointed

Broadcast director: to be appointed

Staff: approximately 30

Budget: dollars 5.7 million (excludes paid advertising)

PR firm of record: Abernathy & Anderson.



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