An article in the Los Angeles Times last week provided a good summary of union campaign tactics being used against Starbucks – apparently now a close second to WalMart as the favorite target of union organizers. The gist of the article is that unions are increasingly leveraging “new media” tactics to spread the word and gain traction for their organizing campaigns – with the central premise that the inherent communication benefits of social media (low cost, huge reach, networking and multi-media capability) is providing a boost to these programs. Examples of new media tactics in the Starbuck’s program include worker videos posted on a website, a guerrilla “hijacking” of a Twitter program and an on-line petition.
Despite the focus on social media, I don’t think these campaigns will be any more successful than previous ones just because of the Web 2.0 tactics. For one thing, authenticity and credibility are paramount in social media programs, and these efforts are clearly biased and polarized. Even the union organizers behind the campaign agree the ultimate intent is to promote the potential EFCA legislation, and attack critics like Starbucks. Even though these networking/viral efforts may theoretically “spread the word” – to use the language of the union organizers – I doubt they will engage many beyond the core supporters or interested pundits. For one thing, Starbucks is no rookie when it comes to social media and PR and has aggressively responded on the Web and on proprietary sites as well as traditional media. So this continues to be a “he said, she said” battle, with each side trying to promote it’s position and leverage the networking ability of social media. Yes, there are Starbuck’s employees featured in the campaign who are critical of management and pushing for union representation, but that’s not new and doesn’t seem to represent a widespread trend.
This campaign sounds to me like similarly clumsy attempts by some PR and advertising firms to generate “buzz” by releasing “viral videos” on YouTube. I have no reason to believe it will spark any more public support or tangible policy change than previous efforts in traditional PR. Campaigns like this only generate genuine interest and momentum when they are legitimate grass-roots efforts that touch a nerve with a large community of consumers – like the infamous “Comcast must Die” website, which recently shutdown in the wake of apologies and concessions from Comcast. Otherwise, they are little more than manufactured “astroturf” campaigns destined to generate limited attention and change.