Liberty, the civil liberties organisation is 75 this week, set up to champion the rights of ordinary people and hold the powerful to account, it has a long history of doing just that. In recent years, the organisation has never been far away from the headlines, as we’ve seen an erosion of our rights on issues like ID cards and 42 day detention but why has it been such a successful organisation, and what could others learn in order to make it to their 75 birthday?
Ensure you have a media friendly director. In Shami Chakrabarti they have a director who is articulate and a media savvy spokeswomen. Shami isn’t afraid to be explosive in her comments (see recent Question Time response to Geoff Hoon) but also has an ability to explain often complex legal arguments in media friendly terms. The organisation has been ruthless about using her for everything public facing, few would be able to name the number 2 at Liberty but it’s a strategy that works as they’ve created a virtuous circle of being the organisation the media call when they want a comment on anything to do with civil liberties.
Build alliances that work not simply build alliances with those you know. Liberty are prepared to take difficult positions which can lead to criticism from some in politics and the media (for example when David Davis resigned as Shadow Home Secretary, which lead to criticisms from Labour ministers that they we’re to close to the Conservatives). But Liberty appear to ignore this, when others would stand back and instead they build alliances that give them traction on issues, and sometime begin to work with those who have previously criticised them. They’ve learnt not to let previous differences get in the way if it’ll further their aims.
Be strategic in what you do. Liberty is an organisation that employs 23 staff, and must have a smallish budget for its work (I couldn’t find the exact figures on the website), so it can’t follow every debate it’d like to be involved in, instead it has chosen a few to focus its capacity and money on, and has had a big impact on the policy debates surrounding those issues.
This is the first in what will be a regular series looking at some of the best and worst actions that arrive in my inbox.
One, the new name in the UK for DATA, the organisation set up by rock stars come campaigner Bob Geldof and Bono have been focusing over the last few months on the upcoming G20 meeting. Unlike other NGOs who have been focusing on the policy outcomes from the meeting, many as part of the Put People First platform, One have been calling for the AU to be invited to the meeting. They recently sent to me an email reporting a breakthrough in what they’ve been calling for.
Why I like this action;
1 – It reports on a victory. Gordon Brown has extended an invite to the meeting to the AU. The initial campaign ask has been achieved. Campaigning can be a unrewarding at times but this e-mail delivers good news, and implies it wouldn’t have happened without your actions.
2 – It builds on the victory, but doesn’t stop their, it wants you to do something else. Thank Gordon Brown and then from that it makes the next call, encouraging him to listen to what the AU delegation has to say. It asks you to do more, it doesn’t just leave you feeling warm inside.
3 – It frames it that your actions were part of a bigger strategy, and say that the campaign was working with Number 10, it makes you think that ONE is an effective advocacy outfit, with the ear of decision makers.
4 – It makes the same ask twice. The email is simple, with one ask repeated twice (in the middle and at the bottom of the text) rather than provide 3 or 4 options of what you could do.
This report, on a World Development Movement letter to Ed Miliband on the building of coal fired power stations in the Observer caught my eye today. Open letters to minister have long been a standard campaigning tactic, but few make it into the papers.
So what have WDM done right?
1 – Given it a go – I’ve been involved in the writing of a number of open letters and I don’t think I’ve ever considered seeing if it had news currency. Credit to WDM, they wrote a letter which had a strong critique of the government and got a good article in the paper which has increased the visibility of their letter, and one hopes its impact.
2 – Got lucky – it was a slow news day this week , so papers were looking to fill column inches, and Sunday papers approach stories differently than the weekly papers.
3 – Made it different – Signatories from 40 countries is impressive (anyone who has tried to coordinate this type of letter knows its not as easy as it might sound), and adds a new angle to the story that the developing world is calling on the UK to clean up its act.
4 – Built a relationship – I don’t know, but I imagine that WDM have built a relationship with Juliette Jowit, making her more likely to report on the letter.
5 – Chosen an hot topic – Climate change is a top news issues, government bashing is in, which makes this letter stand out from some of the more staid open letters NGOs write.
You could set up a whole blog about what we can learn from the Obama presidential campaign, but just a quick post to flag up this interesting article in the Guardian about Thomas Gensemer, MD of Blue State Digital, the company that ran the hugely successful Obama online effort, which raised over $500 million and recruited 13.5 million supporters.
While the focus of the article is about how political parties should use the web, it has lots of lessons that could transfer over to campaigning NGOs. A few key points;
On using the web as a mobilising tool –
Rather than merely join this network, passively clicking a button to donate or express an allegiance to Obama, members were encouraged to go out into the real world to knock on doors, hand out leaflets and spread the word. The site then encouraged these efforts to be recorded and shared with the online community, making the user feel empowered and on the front line of the campaign
Obama saw technology as the only way to transfer traditional community organising to a national level, with volunteers and donors signing up online and then being encouraged to go out to recruit further volunteers, hold meetings and house parties, spread the message.
On the web as a gimick v’s a communication tool
Now Labour MPs are using Twitter, but the political capital that went into getting a couple of MPs to Twitter probably wasn’t worth it. Prescott’s petition on the bankers has 15,000 signatures, but what are they asking people to do? You could have asked for different things that would create a greater sense of engagement. None of this is a technology challenge; it’s an organisational challenge, being willing to communicate with people.
Read the whole article here, which includes a short video of Gensemer reviewing the websites of the Labour and Conservative parties.
UPDATE – Gensemer also spoke to an audience at City University while he was in the UK. The reports from the talk make fascinating reading. You can also view a video here and download the powerpoint slides here.
The recent campaign over the third runway at Heathrow reached the media headlines in a way that few others have in the last few months. While the final result was disapointing and the end of the governments short lived ‘pro environment’ rhetoric, I think it provides a number of useful lessons for campaigners to reflect upon.
Creativity counts – The campaign saw some, in my opinion, some of the best and most creative actions that for a long time. From Greenpeace buying a piece of land to the Climate Rush picnic at T1. We saw some great campaign stunt to complement the more traditional campaign methods. Greenpeace even made headlines for getting Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon banned from the Latitude music festival.
Building a broad coaltion – this article from John Vidal explores the vast coalition that was behind the campaign. From local groups, local councils to some of the biggest environmental NGOs, the campaign managed to unite a vast group of organisations who don’t normally come together. It demonstrated the breadth of concern.
Undoubtably the Conservative Party came out against the runway, in part because of the pressure from local Conservative run councils under the proposed flight path, and the potential of making this an issue in a number of important marginal seats in London.
Lots of emails to MPs get noticed – So some MPs might have complanined about the e-mail bombing that they were on the end off, but none of the 50 MPs could have ignored the number of people (said to be about 5,000) who over a weekend were concerned enough about the issue to send an email.
Understand the political dynamics – Going forward, the clear divisions that occured within the Cabinet over the final decision, provide a useful insight into any future campaigning on similar issues. Its clear that at least two camps are forming around these issues, and may signal the rise of the ‘Milibenn’ tendency.
Because no blog is complete without it! A few links I like from this week.
George Monbiot on politics is broken and the launch of DoSomethingAboutIt
Video of debate to mark the launch of City University’s new MA on Political Campaigning – Political Campaigners and Reporters – partners in democracy or rats in a sack.
Notes from BOND event on Campaigning Effectiveness and using new media
It can only be a matter of time before the verb ‘to twet’ ends up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Last month the BBC reported that the micro-blogging phenomenon had for the first time made it into the top 20 most used social networking sites and that Twitter grew ten fold in 2008.
So should campaigners care? Rachel at The Charity Place has a whole number of excellent posts about Twitter and how to get started, while Econsultancy asks if more charities should be using Twitter.
Enough has already been written about twitter to generate a lifetime of tweets, so I just want to summarise a few ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for campaigners.
– Its free
– Its instant – within moments you can be updating your followers about a new action they can take, a campaign victory to report. No longer do you need to build and send an e-mail or wait until the next campaign publications to tell your supporters.
– So what if you fail – working with social media means a change in attitudes for many, its forcing organisations to be less risk adverse, perhaps a difficult things for NGOs who are aware that everything is paid for by donations, but isn’t the spirit of social media to try things, knowing that some with fail, but many will succeed.
– Politicans are using it – The Economist reports on the use of Twitter among US senators , OK so the UK is different but number 10 has been twittering for the last 12 months, and now a number of MPs are.
– Its growing and fast– are we witnessing a ‘tipping point’ for twitter?
– Who uses it? Twitter may have experienced phenomenal growth in a short time, but who actually uses it? Labour Home asks a good question. Is Twitter just the domain of a small circle of ‘early adopters’ or is it about to break into the mainstream.
– Its more than a just another PR channel – it seems that those who have been most successful with Twitter have embraced the fact its a conversation not another place to post your press release to, but doing this well has time implications.
–You need the right technology – unless you have a web enabled mobile its hard to really follow people. But sales of the iPhone and other similar phones would suggest that more and more people are adopting these
– Does anyone care – Tweetminster is a wonderful idea, but will most MPs respond to a question/comment via Twitter – especially when they’re isn’t any evidence that the followers are from their own constituencies.
Instinctively I’m an ‘early adopter’ so I think Twitter is a great thing. My early adventures (at a UN conference and on a trip to Liberia) have been fun and insightful for thinking about the possibilities of Twitter.
From those experiences I’ve learnt that you need to put some serious time into promoting your feed, and then keeping the messages going to build up a head of steam. Equally you need to invest in putting time into replying to others and building a network on line. Twitter is not going to replace the more traditional methods of communicating with decision makers, but it might be a new one, an opportunity to demonstrate concerns and put issues onto the agenda within moments.
Last month, on a cold winters morning, I joined 100 other people on the banks of the River Thames to take part in a ‘Flash Squat‘ organised by the End Water Poverty campaign to highlight the fact that despite 2008 being the UN Year of Sanitation around the world billions were still denied access to the loo.
This week I’ve been invited to join a banana mob in London to celebrate the end of Fairtrade Fortnight. I’ll be going along, it seems like a fun way to make the end, and I hope the event will help to raise publicity and get more people demanding Fairtrade products in their shops, supermarkets and workplaces.
But judging by this comment in the London Paper it seems that the sudden love of a Flash Mobs by charities hasn’t been met with universal approval! The writer argues that by hijacking the idea, charities are guilty of taking the fun out of the flash mob. So should we plead guilty? Have we taken the fun out of Flash Mobs? I think we can confidently plead not guilty.
Campaigns have a long history of adapting mainstream ideas to get across their message, they’re cheap to organise (surely a bonus in these credit crunch days) and it seems that Flash Mobs still seem to have media currency – something that can be hard to generate at the best of times.
From a policy change perspective, we probably need to be honest with ourselves that these events don’t have much impact on decision makers, although as my colleague remarked after the Flash Squat, I bet most MPs staff read the London Paper on the way home from the office, but from a publicity perspective they can work brilliantly and that seems like a good reason to do them.
At some point they’ll start to lose their when they lose their originality, but until that happens it, I look forward to joining in with many more flash mobs.
Some upcoming events that might be of interest.
Thursday 19th Feb – 5pm
Make Poverty History: Political Communication in Action
Book launch and debate at City University, London – more here
Saturday 28 Feb
6 Billions Ways – Making Another World Possible
London – more here
Saturday 28 Feb – 10am
Labour 2.0 – campaigning for the net generation
London – more here
Monday 2 March – 10am
BOND Campaigning Forum
London – more here
31 March – 1 April
Oxford – more here
And some campaign dates that should be in your diary
Fairtrade Fortnight – 23 Feb to 8 March
Put People First- March for Jobs, Justice and Climate – Saturday 28th March – London
I went to hear a guy called Clay Shirky speak at the LSE earlier this month. More efficient people that me have documented what he had to say here and here.
I hadn’t come across Shirky before, but he’s the author of a book called ‘Here Comes Everybody’ and is regarded as a an expert at online collaboration/online movements. He’s been advising the Obama team about how to keep the web outreach going now they’re in power. It was an enlightening 90 minutes, not all of it is necessarily relevant to campaigning, as much of it was about how governments engage with citizens.
This summary also comes with a ‘the room was full of tech geeks like me so does it work in the real world’ warning! But a few take home messages that got me thinking;
1 – The central premise of his argument is that the web is that ‘group action just got easier‘, and that the web has lowered the transaction costs. He pointed to the example of Facebook being used by students to close down HSBC a/c when they changed the T+C, suggesting that no longer do companies (and I think by extension but less so, governments) have the information and cooperation advantages that they used to have. The web makes it easier to cooperate and share the information you need (this case about how to close down your HSBC a/c).
2 – He argued that Obama was the first ‘platform candidate’ that is, he encouraged people to take his message and make it work for them. He contrasted the McCain online outreach, which was ‘here are some points to make on your blog’ with the activities that people like will.I.am and others had done to take the Obama message.
The challenge for me from this to campaigners, was how do we do this, albeit it on a much smaller scale. Do we needto more to just give our campaigners some key messages/points and let them work for them, or do we do this already?Are their any good examples to
3 – In the Q+As at the end he got into an interesting discussion about the ongoing value of newspapers, he was arguing that the newspaper model of making people pay for news is dying, because people will increasingly get their information from online sources, often ultra local and more interactive. I don’t know if I agree, but got me thinking about two things, a) what would our campaigning look like if we didn’t have newspapers to try to communicate our messages to decision makers, because that’s in part why we do reports, stunts, etc, and b) if paid for newspapers are dying what about the magazines we produce will people want something different from us, does it mean an end to print publications?
4 – He had some insightful stuff to say about the way that new media needs to be incoporated into an organisation. That it should sit somewhere between the technology and communication teams, but allowing space to innovate was criucial as was regular reviewing of what was working and not. He said that because the web changes so quickly it challenges the traditional planning cycles of many organisations.
5 – Finally he pointed to the recent campaign by mysociety on MPs expenses, as an example of one of the first completely web based campaigns. More on their blog – Its a fascinating example of not only how to mobilise lots of people in a short time just using the web, but then getting them to translate into action, and one I think I’m going to come back to.