5 Things You Need to Know About Canada’s Student Unions

Aug 20, 2019

Recently, I partnered with Paul Nixey of Nixey Communications to facilitate a workshop called Public Relations and Power: Effecting Change Through Inclusive and Strategic Communications at the Student Union 2019 Development Summit, hosted at the University of British Columbia.

Our participants offered insights about their work on the ground across Canada, and we were especially pleased to hear that these student leaders found our workshop valuable and actionable. We’d also like to thank former Vancouver City Councillor and Harvard Loeb Fellow Andrea Reimer for facilitating our conversation and adding her unique perspective about power and politics.

Here are 5 key takeaways for Canada’s student unions from our experience:

1. Canada’s student unions are on the front lines, defending education and students’ rights.

These are challenging times for the student union movement. Populist governments across Canada are trying to place restrictions on memberships in an attempt to curtail the power of these organizations. In the face of this hostile political environment, it’s more important than ever that Canada’s student unions invest in communications, public relations, crisis planning—and internal capacity-building.

2. Canada’s student union leaders are smart, forward-looking, and optimistic.

Yes, these are challenging times, but it’s clear that Canada’s student union leaders are up to the task. Conferences like the Student Union 2019 Development Summit are examples of student leaders convening to exchange best practices and learn from industry experts on a variety of topics that impact their memberships.

3. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Each student union, in each region, faces unique challenges. Communications tactics that work in Fredericton might not be effective in Victoria or Toronto. While it’s true that there are overlapping issues that affect each student union, each one will have different relationships, cultures, and media environments that change the dynamics. A custom plan is the best solution to ensure your message gets heard.

4. Public Relations is a vital tool in a student union’s toolkit.

Media coverage drives public opinion and is monitored closely by stakeholders—both internal and external. A well-executed PR campaign can help shift the balance of power by applying pressure to elected officials and university administrators. Effective PR can also raise awareness of issues that important to your agenda, your constituents’ agenda, and it can help build coalitions.

5. Call in the experts.

If your organization is looking to write a PR plan, execute a campaign, or even plan for a crisis, call in the experts. Media training, strategic advice, and crisis expertise can help you proactively develop good news stories—and be prepared when the phone rings with a reporter on the line.

Paul Nixey is a communications consultant with more than 20 years experience in public relations, digital marketing, content management, and crisis communications. He was the campaign director for the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association’s successful ESL Matters campaign, which resulted in the restoration of ESL funding to post-secondary institutions in British Columbia. @paulnixey

Kylie McMullan is the Principal of Finch Media a marketing and communications agency and the co-author of Canadian PR for the Real World, the first Canadian based public relations textbook. Finch Media was recently nominated as an Outstanding Workplace by the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards.