Pen is mightier than the picket: Unions are producing some striking journals and PR campaigns, says Helen Hague

Something remarkable has happened to trade union journals in recent years: some titles have become good reads for those not automatically enthralled by the intricacies of conference composite motions, badly laid-out branch resolutions, and the thoughts of the general secretary.

Although dullness has not been banished, the best union journals could now give titles selling on the news-stands a run for their money in holding readers' attention.

Julia Simpson, winning editor of this year's trade union journals contest, has a strict rubric: 'No podium shots.' Limp, out-of-date copy about delegation visits, and all-male line-ups of union officials are also banned.

Ms Simpson edits the UCW Journal, which is mailed direct to 160,000 postmen and women. It has to compete with the Royal Mail's highly effective PR machine, Ms Simpson explains. 'Royal Mail London employees receive four glossy publications a month through their letter-boxes.' But the journal is rising to the challenge, a hard-hitting article on rural post services scooping the best feature award. Judges said it 'would not have been out of place in a top Sunday colour magazine'.

The journal addresses the agenda of the Union of Communication Workers, but does not assume readers have any prior knowledge of the union, its policies, aims or history. Take the winning issue. Research showed that UCW members are mostly Sun/Mirror or Mail/Express readers. The union wanted to encourage members to attend an anti-racist rally. So it splashed with an action shot of the footballer John Fashanu and a meaty article, 'Boot Racism off the Pitch.' The GMB (the General Municipal, Boilermakers' and Allied Trades Union) puts a lot of effort into its stable of titles. Working Woman is left lying around in canteens in the hope it will be picked up by women who don't belong to the union but could be persuaded to join.

It is lively, with lots of colour pictures, snappy headlines and a freepost tear-off recruitment card. Features on domestic violence, and a human interest story highlighting the 400,000 women who are looking for work but don't show up in the jobless figures because they are married ('I Am Not Invisible'), picked up plaudits from the judges.

Phil Woolas, head of communications at the GMB, says 600 to 800 women per issue return the card to 'join the GMB and get your free copy of Working Woman'.

The union also publishes Issue, a mix of pop and politics for young members, and GMB Direct, a style- conscious magazine mailed to 'activists and opinion formers'. Mr Woolas says that readers' views on GMB Direct are revealing: 'The major reaction I get is, 'Isn't it good - it doesn't look like a trade union magazine.' It's meant as a compliment, but it's a comment on the low expectations people have of unions.'

The change in the journals is part of a broader attempt by unions to hone their presentational skills. The plunge in membership - from more than 12 million in 1979 to 7.3 million now - shows unions can no longer take their role for granted. The closed shop has been scrapped, and members who have their subscriptions deducted from the payroll are required to sign up every three years. So all but the most backward-looking or hard-up unions now have well-informed press officers ready to fax documents, get quotes or suggest stories.

There are other ways of getting the message across. Unison, which represents public service employees and is Britain's biggest union, has nearly 40 people in its communications office and spent pounds 1.25m on posters in the run-up to the local elections in May.

The union included a picture of two children, one brandishing a toy stethoscope above the caption, 'Let's play accountants and fund- holders.' The GMB, meanwhile, commissioned a giant inflatable Robert Maxwell to highlight its pensions campaign.

The Trades Union Congress has been slower than some of its member unions to revamp its press department. Last month, as part of the TUC's relaunch, the office was recast as the 'campaigns and communications department'.

When delegates leave Blackpool on Friday after the TUC conference, they will do so armed with information on debates and motions, and action briefings on topics from maternity rights and full employment to health and safety. A 'Top Tips for Campaigning' leaflet will also be given out.

John Healey, newly-appointed head of the restyled PR department, says: 'We have to be campaigning rather than purely reactive. We are beginning to see trade unions as an important voice on the business pages, the personal finance pages, the health page and even the lifestyle pages. It's not just about strikes and relations with the Labour Party.' This year, for the first time, the TUC's general secretary will be addressing fringe meetings at all three party conferences.

The irony is that while unions have become increasingly open, available and media friendly, the appetite of news editors for union stories - strikes apart - has waned dramatically since the days when teams of labour writers bashed out copy by the yard. Now some papers have even dispensed with labour specialists.

But if unions can weave themselves into the fabric of the media, rather than hogging the front pages with the latest strike bulletin, the new guard at Congress House will be more than happy.