WhatsApp is a useful organising tool for building strong engagement within and between groups of members, reps and officers. It is also a useful communication tool for distributing and sharing information within union branches, districts and workplace union groups.

It is free to use, most people with a smart phone (which is most people) already use it and, for those who don’t yet use it, it is easy to learn. It is easy to share text, pictures, video and documents through WhatsApp. However, there are downsides to WhatsApp too, and it is not always the most appropriate form of communication.

How to Use WhatsApp

This guide will give you an overview of how to use WhatsApp effectively for union communications, before you get started.

If you have never used WhatsApp you can watch this video introduction

1. Create a group – video guide

In WhatsApp, click “new chat”, then “new group” and select another person in your contacts to join a group. Give your group a name that people will remember easily, for example “NEU Anytown Branch”. You can also upload a picture to help people find the group.

In “group info” you can find a “group link” that can be used to invite people to the group. It is important that people join the group using the link, unless they have expressly given you permission to be added directly to the group, as their number will be shared with others in the group. Links can also be “revoked”, which will disable them.

Once your group is up and running, you should select some other people to be co-admins. Admins can add and remove people from the group. They can also delete other people’s messages (and they should – quickly – if people write inappropriate things).

2. Establish rules and maintain them

For WhatsApp to be an effective communication tool, people need to read and engage in the information that is shared. Traffic can be high, especially in larger groups, and this can mean that people miss information or disengage with the channel of communication, which defeats the point. People can also become relaxed when communicating on WhatsApp and forget they are still in a professional environment, which can make them vulnerable to breaching their employer’s policies.

To help prevent your WhatsApp group becoming ineffective, here is some suggested text you can use, when inviting people to join the group, which outlines the rules from the outset:  

Dear [insert name],

I have set up a WhatsApp group for NEU [insert branch/workplace name] members, for mutual support and sharing of information. This group is for NEU members only and you can join using this link [insert group hyperlink]

Please read the following guidelines for your own protection.

WhatsApp guidelines

1. Remain professional and be aware of your social media policy – rule of thumb: don’t mention a pupil or parent by name, and only talk about what is happening in school/college in factual terms rather than emotive terms, avoiding naming individuals wherever possible.

2. Be considerate and respectful of each other and abide by the NEU Behaviour Statement that you can read here: www.neu.org.uk/learning-and-events .

3. Mute the group to prevent repeated notifications.

4. Avoid messaging late at night or very early in the morning.

5. Keep discussions relevant to school/college and union matters – individual conversations should happen outside of the group.

6. Do not share individuals’ comments or details with anyone outside of this group.

Addressing disruptive behaviour

Conversations can easily deviate from school/college and union matters and some individuals can dominate the chat, or make other people feel uncomfortable. These situations will need to be managed carefully but also promptly. If people in the chat are digressing to personal conversations, you should remind them that your group is for union chat and suggest they make a new “social” group for other topics.

If someone is being disruptive or inappropriate, contact the participant privately to let them know their behaviour is not acceptable for this space. This can be a valuable learning opportunity for the participant, who might not understand why their behaviour is unacceptable. It's also useful to make personal contact in this way before taking further action, since disruptive behaviour might be the result of feelings of frustration or exclusion from your WhatsApp chat.

However, if a participant continues their unacceptable behaviour you can, and should, “remove” them from your group. You can do this by clicking on the arrow to the right of their name in “group info”. Once removed, the participant will not be able to re-join the WhatsApp group.

3. Making collective decisions

WhatsApp is not usually the best place for union groups to make collective decisions. This is because people engage in groups at different times, with different frequencies, and some people choose not to engage at all for periods of time. Important decisions should be left for meetings (real life or digital) when things can be discussed properly as a group and everybody gets an opportunity to vote.

However, they are a good place to gauge opinion, find out about issues, and set dates and plan for proper union meetings. There are a variety of free online tools that can be used to help you collect this information via the group, by sharing survey links such as Doodle or SurveyMonkey.

4. GDPR considerations

Being part of a WhatsApp group reveals your phone number to other members of the group. If the group is for trade union members only, this will make your trade union membership obvious to other members of the group. Both these factors fall under General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)

For that reason, it is important that people either give express permission to be added to a group, or that they join using the link provided, and that they know what the purpose is for the group before joining or being added.