June 2010

North of 49°
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New Brunswick Local Taps Into Social Media
to Mobilize Membership

The announcement last October of a deal to sell off New Brunswick's public utility company, NB Power, set off alarm bells for employees and consumers across the province.

The sale would have put the jobs of more than 2,200 IBEW members at risk, and while initially freezing rates, would have had an unknown rate impact on thousands of New Brunswick consumers and businesses.

As the union representing a majority of the workers at the utility, Fredericton Local 37 was poised to play a key role in the movement to stop the sale, but the challenge facing Business Manager Ross Galbraith was this: how do you inform and mobilize a membership dispersed across an entire province?

Galbraith says he was initially going to mail letters to the membership detailing the situation, but after talking with his newly-hired staffer Mary Williamson, he decided that something more was needed.

"We set up a camcorder in my office and I spoke about the sale and what the IBEW's position was," he said.

The six-minute message was then posted to YouTube—the popular Internet video network. Within a week it had more than 1,000 views. "I'm not so sure we would have had the same impact with a mailed letter," Galbraith said. "You can convey a lot more information using video. Viewers can really see how you feel about an issue."

YouTube would become one of Local 37's top communications tools in the "Stop the Sale" campaign. The local would post more than 10 videos over the next five months, from updates from Galbraith to rally coverage and town hall meetings. Social media messaging also alerted members to rallies and other public events, increasing IBEW involvement.

"The whole campaign was done with a sense of urgency," said Williamson, who serves as the local's membership and organizational development lead. "We wanted to reach the membership immediately and make them feel plugged in. YouTube turned out to be a very effective way to do that."

Other groups opposing the sale also utilized social media, with a grassroots Facebook site serving as a focal point for over 28,000 people opposing the sale and another well-organized group, called the "NB Power Not for Sale Coalition" also using the same tools to organize rallies and lobby elected officials. These efforts paid off when Premier Shawn Graham backed off the deal in March.

Now Galbraith is looking to expand their social media toolbox for future organizing opportunities.

"I've just started using Twitter," he said, referring to the micro-blogging site. "It allows me to post brief notes about some of the items I'm dealing with." Galbraith says that his members appreciate having more ways of communicating with the local. "With Twitter, Facebook and blogging we can inform members about different activities and issues, and also talk about some of the big picture issues facing the local."

Local 37 is exploring even more options, looking at the possibilities of using text messages, virtual meetings and online chats to connect and inform members.

Social media has also allowed the IBEW in New Brunswick to promote itself on the wider Web. "These days, if someone wants to find out about something, they turn to Google," Galbraith said. "If you want to get your message out there, social media should be one of the tools you're using."

And with more journalists getting their news tips from tweets instead of press releases, the local's engagement with new media has resulted in increased news coverage for the IBEW. "One day I received a call out of the blue from a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. who was following me on Twitter," Galbraith said.

His advice to business managers looking to start in social media is to experiment with the different tools available to see which ones best fit the needs of your members. "None of this takes the place of building real face-to-face relationships, but it can be a great tool to help facilitate them."

"We are facing a younger generation of members who aren't necessarily engaged with the union," Williamson said. "We recognize their value and importance, so we've made it a real priority to try and find new ways to reach out and get them involved in helping shape the future of their union—Local 37."

To check out Local 37's YouTube channel, go to www.youtube.com/user/IBEW37. To follow Ross Galbraith on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/RossGalbraith.