Contract negotiations usually occur behind closed doors, but the advent of social media has pushed it away from the bargaining table and onto discussion boards, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.
Currently, The University of Western Ontario nears the end of negotiations with two of its largest unions – The University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) and The University of Western Ontario Staff Association (UWOSA). The faculty association will hold a ratifying vote today and tomorrow, the staff association’s tomorrow and Monday. Both tentative agreements, once ratified by the memberships, will go to Western’s Board of Governors on Nov. 16.
For the first time, Western decided to use social media sites, Facebook and Twitter, to communicate about contract negotiations.
“The online interest is unlike anything I’ve experienced before in my 11 years at Western,” says Terry Rice, Department of Communications and Public Affairs marketing and creative services director. “We have a cohort of very bright students who are already communicating in this space. We needed to communicate as much as possible and on the channels where we had the best chance of breaking through. This meant Facebook and Twitter, in addition to traditional websites.”
With about 34,000 undergraduate and graduate students on campus and 3,500 full-time faculty and staff members, all eyes were watching the outcomes of these negotiations.
As UWOFA negotiations stretched into the early morning hours of Wednesday, Nov. 3 and the tentative agreement clocking in after the strike deadline, conversations ramped up on Twitter and Facebook. Similarly, followers continued to watch the results of the UWOSA contract negotiations on Thursday, Nov. 4 through the morning of Friday, Nov. 5.
On Tuesday, Nov. 2 (the final day before UWOFA’s strike deadline), Western’s Facebook site peaked at nearly 37,000 page views (6,929 were unique page views, meaning a new individual visiting the site). This is a significant spike compared to the average page views of 867 the previous week (491 unique page views).
Likewise, the chatter on Twitter increased from Thursday, Oct. 28 to Wednesday, Nov. 3 with 533 new followers of the “westernu” account, bringing the total to 2,718 followers.
“The biggest advantage of using Facebook and Twitter is that the communication can be two-way,” Rice says. “We were able to view, literally in real-time, our students questions and concerns, and respond in a meaningful way.”
Western also posted updates on the Contract Negotiations @ Western website, which received 51,199 page views on Tuesday, Nov. 2 and 79,710 page views on Wednesday, Nov. 3. Of those views on Nov. 3, almost half of the visitors viewed the website between midnight and 1 a.m.
As Facebook is intended to be an open-forum for discussion, Western tried to stay at arms-length from the online conversations. However, in the case where incorrect factual details were posted, such as students misinforming other students, the Department of Communications and Public Affairs (which manages the site) jumped in to post accurate information.
“When it comes to information that concerns a large and diverse group of people, as is the case with the contract negotiations at universities, it is important to employ diverse media to communicate,” says Anabel Quan-Haase, associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, whose research focuses on how people use new technologies in the workplace to exchange information.
Social media occupies a unique niche in the communication strategy, she adds.
“In comparison to traditional media, such as newspapers or magazines, they provide instantaneous information. In addition, social media have many features that allow information to be disseminated easily to colleagues, friends, and other relevant groups with added commentary. Perhaps the most important aspect of social media in these cases is the possibility for feedback,” she says.
A standard website does not allow for users to add their own perspective, while Web 2.0 tools provide the opportunity to add information, comment on the information, or link to other external sources of information.
By nature, Facebook, Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies demand regular and real-time updates of information, and are community-oriented, interactive and user-centred. However, these user demands seem to conflict with the way contract negotiations are traditionally kept confidential.
Social media tools are not created for communication that is centralized and censored, says Quan-Haase.
“While the details of the negotiations may need to be kept strictly confidential, this does not mean that the community is not in need of information,” she explains. “The community still needs to be kept up-to-date with relevant information about the negotiations, including how the negotiations are developing, the details around possible work disruptions, and the ways that the administration is dealing with various issues linked to the negotiations. Social media can continue to play a central role, even if not all information can be disclosed.”
The insatiable appetite for information was proven on Nov. 3 when Western’s website traffic increased so dramatically (nearly 16,000 hits in less than 10 minutes) the server for Western News overloaded after a UWOFA negotiations update was posted at 12:05 a.m.
Western News stories are dynamically generated from a database server, which couldn’t keep up with the spike in demand. Upon this discovery, the information was switched to display on a standard html page and no further issues were cited.
When Western’s server went down, Twitter became the go-to source for information, notes Quan-Haase.
One important lesson from the use of social media during the negotiations is how to communicate effectively with a large and diverse group of individuals, particularly in case of emergency, she adds. “Clearly a communication strategy needs to be in place that allows for real-time communication via various Web 2.0 platforms.”
One of the more interesting challenges of using social media throughout this process was staffing, notes Rice, adding this was felt by not only Western’s Department of Communications and Public Affairs, but also the student newspaper, The Gazette, as well as The London Free Press.
“Visitors to Facebook and the Contract Negotiations website as well as Twitter followers had an appetite for up-to-the minute updates, at all hours of the day, unlike anything I’ve seen before,” Rice says. “The highest volume of traffic on Facebook for example was between midnight and 1 a.m. on Nov. 3. And this traffic stayed strong into the early hours that morning.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the Twitter hash tag “#uwo” (the tag used to identify all posts related to Western) was one of the most-used hash tags of the day nationally by Twitter users, making it “trend” as one of the most discussed topics in Canada.
“To have an open line of communication with university students is essential during contract negotiations,” Quan-Haase says. “University students across Canada are amongst the highest users of social media. Social media is an integral part of their everyday routines … so, streaming messages via Twitter and Facebook seems a natural way of keeping the community informed and engaged.”
Social media by the numbers
36,898 – number of Western’s Facebook page views on Nov. 2.
48,077 – number of time “Talks with UWOFA continue” post appear on individual Facebook fans’ wall and news feeds on Nov. 3.
21 – number of comments after the 4 a.m. post on Nov. 3 of “Tentative UWOFA agreement.”
10,649 – number of times “UWOSA tentative agreement” appeared on individual Facebook fans’ wall and news feeds on Nov. 4.
10,599 – number of people who ‘like’ Western’s official Facebook group.
533 – number of people who started following Western’s Twitter account Oct. 28-Nov. 3, bringing the total to 2,718 followers.