Government & Broadcast Media vs BCTF & Facebook

British Columbia is currently in the midst of its every-five-years labour relations tilt-up between provincial government and the teachers union, the BCTF.

Leaving aside the merits of any particular side’s arguments, I’ve been struck recently between the quite different messages I’m receiving about the dispute via different communications paths.

Via the broadcast media (TV, radio, newspapers, all the organs with a single publisher) I’ve been getting a pretty standard he-said-she-said message, in which the official spokespeople of both sides give their say, and the focus tends on dry talk of fiscal matters. Pundits talk about the political interests of each side, and about who is “winning”, the sides themselves engage in rhetoric that tends towards the abstract and rhetorically overblown.

If they are looking only at the broadcast media, the government can probably tell themselves they are winning, mostly. The conversation tends towards “affordability” and wages, with a lot less focus on working conditions, class size, class room composition, the kinds of things your kids actually experience when you drop them off every day.

Now, look at Facebook.

Let me start this off by noting that I am not a big Facebooker. I got an account some time ago, added a few dozen high-school and college friends, a handful of current acquaintances: I have just 41 “friends”. But even that small pool includes two school teachers, and probably quite a few friends-of-school-teachers.

And so I have gotten,

Pictures of friendly teachers on the picket line,

Sandwich board preparation,

Event information.

I’ve also had the opportunity to read longer-form descriptions of what teachers feel about the dispute and the state of the classroom, written by teachers themselves, not by the press officers of the BCTF. (Due to the “walled garden” nature of Facebook, these deep links into Facebook content may not work for everyone, apologies in advance.)

There’s really no comparison. The teachers are getting personal, moving messages delivered directly to me in real time via my social media feeds. The government is getting dry, numeric messages delivered to me if I happen to have my radio or TV on.

Traditionally teachers have always gone into these disputes with a bit of an advantage – people know and have personal connections to their children’s teachers. With social media, that traditional person-to-person advantage is magnified ten-fold and more. Now even citizens without children in the system can get direct, personal messages from the teachers that they know, directly or indirectly. Even if you don’t know a teacher, you surely know several people who do.

The government picked a fight with teachers assuming they could win a wedge issue by smacking down a public sector union long typecast as “troublesome” and “militant”. I think they could end up getting a worse black eye than they ever imagined, via the social media feeds of the thousands of teachers they’ve made enemies of.

Postscript: This isn’t just about message, it’s about messengers and population size. There’s 41K BCTF members, that’s a lot of people in a province of just 4M. BCTF members can create a lot of social media signal, compared to the professional communicators in government. I’m sure the government would like to have a great social media presence on this issue, but there aren’t 41K government communicators spread out nice and uniformly through every community in the province. They just don’t stand a chance.

Postscript 2: As if to hammer home the point, this post, which yesterday received a couple hundred views after I posted it to twitter, has received 3 times the traffic today after a teacher shared it on Facebook.