I have a confession to make. I have attended meetings of the Students’ Representative Council for fun. In fact, I do this so often that for my 21st birthday a friend made me an SRC-style place card with my name and position on it. Yet even I can’t find anything to like about last week’s abysmal “That’s Union” awareness campaign.
Let’s start with the campaign’s ill-defined aims: “Illuminating some of the lesser known areas of the Union and letting students know what they can do to get involved”. They evoke memories of the annual Union elections, when candidates invariably promise greater “transparency”. Lovely buzzwords, little substance.
To an extent the nebulous goals don’t matter, however, because the campaign’s shockingly poor execution means it never stood a chance. Look at the timing: six weeks in, squashed between Raisin and the rectorial elections, just as deadlines are starting to bite. There are few times it will be more difficult to grab students’ attention, and besides, by this point the kind of person likely to get involved with the Union will already have done so.
And how to go about raising that awareness? There’s the thoroughly uninspiring campaign website, which includes such hackneyed phrases as “Every student at St Andrews has the right to understand exactly how their Union works” (are we being denied this?) and “The SRC can be whatever the students of St Andrews want it to be”. Then there’s the promise that the campaign “will be actively sharing content both on our website and across social media”.
The flaw here is obvious: the people who read the Union’s website and follow it on social media are those who are already interested and engaged. The attempt to solve this by encouraging Union folks to change their Facebook photos and share content generally seems to have resulted in a small clique seeing identical posts 27 times while most people haven’t seen anything. Twitter, as a more public medium, had a better chance of success – but only four non-Union people were inspired to tweet with the hashtag #ThatsUnion (and one of them was me).
It gets worse, for I’m not alone in being unenthusiastic – the Union itself doesn’t seem to be either. We were promised “videos, opinion pieces, and informational articles”, but by the end of the campaign there were just six opinion pieces, two articles and a single video. (There were also three “infographics”.) Considering the Union can call on the resources of four sabbatical officers, 24 SRC members, 15 SSC members, 21 school presidents and over 300 class reps, that’s not great. An obvious way to raise the profile of “That’s Union” would have been for the sabbs to include it in their weekly email to all students, but they haven’t even managed that. In fact, the only time “That’s Union” has come up in a mass email was in last Wednesday’s memos (it was item 15, in case you missed it). The campaign doesn’t even feature prominently on the front page of the Union website.
Given all this, a more cynical person than I might suggest “That’s Union” was dreamed up by SRC members as a nice thing for them to say they did without having to invest any real effort; a way for student politicians to have fun playing at campaigning for a week. That might explain why they felt it appropriate to spend £242 on t-shirts for the volunteers, more than half of the campaign’s total cost.
The real problem is that the campaign was based on a classic misconception: that everyone would care more about student politics if only they were better informed. The campaign organisers care deeply about the Union, and they think they can make everyone else care too. But the truth is that most students never will, and those that are going to, already do.
There is one way we might be able to get students to take more notice of the Union: show them the concrete benefits it gives them. The campaign website trumpets the zero tolerance policy brought in last year, but describes no instances when the policy stopped someone being harassed. The site talks about the new employability subcommittee, but it doesn’t give examples of how this has helped students get jobs.
“That’s Union” did a shoddy job of explaining what the Union is and how to take part, but its crucial failing was that it did nothing to explain why students should want to get involved. The ideal of participation alone is not enough. Provide real and substantial examples of the Union benefiting students, and they may just pay attention.