Social media's industrial strength

Angry social media-based campaigns have recently claimed some high profile and diverse victims, and are now playing a new role in industrial disputes. Public relations teams must arm themselves for a new front in the communications battle.

Quick quiz: What do the Victorian nurse’s union, Kyle Sandilands and The Circle’s co-host Yumi Stynes have in common? They all tell stories about the use of social media as a weapon. It’s a warning for companies, politicians and managers who have until now regarded social media as just a marketing tool and press release.

In what would have to be a first in industrial disputes in Australia, Facebook became the battleground, and a public one at that, between the nurses and the Victorian government. The website, Respect Our Work, received more than 15,000 likes with more than 11,300 talking about the issues it raises. No shabby effort, there are companies that would kill for that sort of response. The nurses are old hands at this sort of stuff. They had a Facebook page in their 2007 campaign although back then, Facebook rules prohibited organisations from running comments. This one was a completely open page for the public. In effect, the nurses established a free website for their campaign, maximum impact at low cost. The public also sent nurses "tweet beeps” on Twitter.

The Facebook page is significant because of a ruling by the Federal Court on February 28 that ordered the nurses to cease industrial action. Nurses defied the court with more than 1000 nurses taking part in rolling stoppages at 15 hospitals.

Justice Richard Tracey prohibited the "aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring any of the conduct” in relation to the illegal industrial action. Following the court ruling, Baillieu government solicitors wrote to the Australian Nursing Federation demanding it delete nurses’ and midwives’ posts. "We also require that you confirm in writing that, once deletions have been effected, the ANF continue to maintain its social media websites to ensure that comments of a similar nature are immediately deleted.” Leaving aside the bad grammar from presumably private-school-educated government lawyers, the attempt to shut down the site signified that Victorian government lawyers had finally twigged – Facebook can be used as a strategy to galvanise public support, something that unsettled the government with the latest Newspoll showing satisfaction with Premier Ted Baillieu as leader dropping by 11 points since October. The government realised too late that social media is a potent weapon.

Postings on the site skated dangerously close to contempt of court, creating a significant legal precedent for social media. Lawyers for the Victorian government argued that the comments on the site were in open defiance of the court directive that the union stop inciting its members to strike. This was new and untested territory for the courts. Significantly, the long running dispute now appears to be nearing its end with a resolution now expected by March 16. Industrial action has ceased and both sides have put all legal action on hold.

The power of the site came from the pictures and postings from the nurses, none from the ANF.

Some examples: "Wow!! A for efficiency at The Alfred...nurses have received their "Pay Docking Letters" already” and "5East staff – every day these nurses (and their fantastic patients) came down, steadfast in the face of pressure, true heroes of the campaign!” and "Welcome the Austin nurses, leaving their own walk out to support the Alfred” and "Dispute is not over yet, but at least we can see a shimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to father bob for dropping by, and thanks to all the other unions that showed their support. Ted Baillieus family may stick his finger up at us, but we know the community respects our work.... cant stick your fingers up at that Mr Baillieu.”

Some nurses even expressed regret that the dispute might be drawing to an end and they would be losing their Facebook page: "When this whole thing is over are we going to have an ANF Party????? I'm gonna miss this page.”

Australian futurist and technology expert Ross Dawson says it’s only a matter of time before we see Facebook and other social platforms being used by all parties in industrial disputes to get public support beyond all proportion to their size in society. "I would be amazed if we didn’t see it. These are the tools of today in terms of reaching and influencing and shaping opinion and I can’t see any future where these are not primary tools of communications for unions, employee groups and employer groups.”

In terms of public impact, Dawson says, these sorts of tools will be particularly effective in disputes where the public is affected. Apart from nurses, there are also teachers and Qantas pilots.

James Griffin from social media analysis company SR7 says social media was used to target 2DayFM’s Karl Sandilands in the wake of his attack on a female journalist last year and, more recently, The Circle'sStynes following stupid comments she made about Australian war hero Ben Roberts-Smith. The same has happened to American shock jock Rush Limbaugh. Activists and protesters targeted Facebook pages of media networks and advertisers and forced them to pull out.

"There is now a theme emerging of the public putting pressure on companies through social media,’’ Griffin says. "They looked at social media as a marketing tool, now they’re starting to realise it’s much more. The issue of social media activism and risk management for corporations and governments is only just beginning to be realised. Imagine the trouble that the miners, CSG and others will run into when social media activism starts heading their way."

Social media won’t change industrial relations. Industrial disputes have always turned on the same issues from time immemorial. They will continue to follow the same line of ambit claims and intransigence from both sides taking things to the nth degree until they realise they need to sort things out. But what it will do is get the public involved and that will put pressure on companies, much in the same way as it did with Sandilands and The Circle.

Social media is a completely new way of doing things for managers. Companies have avoided dealing with it because of time and resources and they regard most of what’s discussed online as shallow when they have work to do. There’s also lack of expertise and ignorance. They might say there are no sufficient tools yet to measure the effectiveness of social media and there is no ROI. But the nurses dispute, not to mention what’s happened to Sandilands and The Circle tells us that will have to change. The nurses’ use of Facebook is a warning that could extend well beyond industrial relations.

Related Articles