Unions must hone their marketing skills

If most of the Tory leadership contenders are having trouble being recognised by the public, imagine how many recognise Brendan Barber, the TUC general-secretary who led its annual conference this week. He hardly drew the media's attention to his members' cause.

How can unions prosper if no one knows who they are? Ironically Barber was once in charge of the TUC's media operation, so he should know the value of PR. Yet all he could muster on the opening day of the conference was a few minutes on the Today programme in the 7.10am slot.

I was a union press officer myself ages ago with Bill Jordan and Gavin Laird as my bosses. They may not have been popular with other union leaders, but they realised that headline-making was important for the profile of unions as a whole.

Had Barber said 'Blair must go now' on Monday he may not have forced the Prime Minister out early, but it would have made bigger headlines than 'something must be done with pensions'. The PR teams at Amicus and the TGWU knew this and it is why their leaders, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley respectively, were widely reported for their views on Blair last weekend.

Some unions have excellent media officers but are not always helped by their bosses. Bob Crow at the RMT can be guaranteed to turn a good story into a bad one for the union with his macho attitude. Indeed machismo does seem to be a general problem for the unions. Shamefully, there are no female union leaders.

I must admit that in my day it was a little easier for union PROs because there were many more dedicated industry reporters, who were desperate for copy. Today even BBC TV lacks a union specialist, which helps explain why coverage of the recent BA dispute was so poor. We never heard that, unbelievably, many of the strikers were not even members of the union.

Under a Labour government the unions should have thrived. Unemployment has virtually been eradicated and a massive two million new jobs have been created. Labour may have introduced the minimum wage but most of the Tory legislation has stayed in place, so many workers have every reason to join a union. And yet union membership has fallen by 300,000 since Blair became Prime Minister.

Some of this is because unions are just not professional enough. They have a good product yet are hopeless at marketing it. The six million people still in unions certainly deserve a better hearing.

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