Communications strategies and the #MeToo campaign

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Are union communicators prepared for the moment that #metoo involves one of their union’s leaders?

What are the crisis communications plans for unions if someone (or many people) make a claim of sexual assault or harassment against someone currently or formerly involved with the union, whether in leadership or as staff?

These questions were posed at a CALM mini-conference session at the end of November, and generally, the responses revealed that unions are not ready for this moment, or this movement.

The questions arose from a discussion about current issues in social media. Unions communications representatives are majority women and we are often both looking at the phenomenon of #metoo from the perspective of survivors or people who have experienced sexist and/or sexual abuse or harassment, but also from the perspective of someone who might some day have to write that initial response on behalf of an organization, or an employer.

To ensure that our responses centre survivors, we need to plan ahead. Thoughtful responses that support members in their journeys rarely happen on the fly. It’s important for the legwork to be done to anticipate a crisis, regardless of whether or not one ever materializes.

#MeToo has helped to open up spaces where women and survivors of sexual assault are heard and believed. It’s a watershed moment that has touched many industries: journalism, film, television and music especially. We know that anywhere that there is a power imbalance, it’s extremely likely that sexual assault or abuse will happen. It’s important to remember that the highest profile cases of sexual abusers exposed have happened in highly unionized industries. And we know that it’s not just the entertainment business where sexual assault or harassment is rampant.

Unions must respond to charges of sexual assault or abuse with care, compassion and support for the accuser(s). Denying a charge, casting dispersions on the accuser(s) or ignoring them are not options for progressive organizations whose existence is wrapped up in fighting for social change. If there’s anything that we can learn from HBO’s Girls co-creator and star Lena Dunham, it’s that our support for women must be firm; it cannot change because someone we might be close to, or who might have power over us is accused.

Dunham has had to repeatedly and embarassingly apologize for her missteps. She’s the embodiment of another viral hashtag: #solidarity is for white women, a campaign that exposes how, far too often, white women will ignore or refuse to defend racialized women.

If a member of your union’s leadership faces an accusation of aiding or ignoring sexual abuse, are you ready to respond? Do you have a plan in place?

If your answer is no, you should seriously consider getting a plan together. Your plan could include protocols like: how many people need to see a response, who signs off on it, do you need an alternative arrangement in case someone who normally is involved in your communications is close to the person accused? And most importantly: how do you reach out to the accuser, who does it, how you fully respect their wishes and ensure their involvement, as defined by them, every step of the way?

This process may put your communications team into difficult and uncomfortable places, so be prepared for that.

Above all, your plan should be flexible enough to fit any situation that might arise, and centre the voice(s) of the survivor(s)/complainant(s). And, it should be written for an audience that includes members who are survivors of sexual assault and harassment. Acknowledging their experiences is critical, as your union must continue to represent them too, regardless of whatever allegations might come forward.

You will also want to talk to other people in your union to harmonize your communications response plan with your internal policies and procedures: you need to know whether a committee is immediately struck, or if this is then dealt with by a committee that already exists. Do you have someone with the relevant expertise, or is this a training gap that your union must address? Who coordinates investigations into complaints about sexual abuse? What kind of training could be offered for leadership and staff to adequately manage a situation? Having a risk assessment meeting that imagines the steps you might take in a crisis is a good way to identify these gaps and avoid missteps.

Give yourself dates to revisit the plan, improve it or adjust it as context changes.

Creating spaces where survivors are safe and supported to tell their stories, be believed and see justice is the work of all union activists. When these allegations are made towards our unions, our members feel a double sense of betrayal. Before you’re facing a crisis, think through these issues, debate your best responses and be prepared.


Do you have anything to add? Have you tried to speak out and felt silenced? Email Nora with your thoughts (confidentiality guaranteed):