How stunts can amplify your campaign message

Earlier this month, working with the Crack the Crises coalition, I was in Cornwall for the G7. 

Around Falmouth, where the G7 media center was located, at times it felt like you were at a festival of activism, with dozens of causes and campaigns looking to get coverage for their issues, and given the COVID restrictions more so than at previous G7 lots of these were through photo stunts (see a good collection here).

Across the weekend of the summit, as the Crack the Crises coalition, we organised for a blimp of Boris and Joe Biden to float in the Harbour, and for members of the coalition and the local community to hold a Vigil to remember the 3.7 million people globally who had lost their lives due to COVID.

So it got me thinking about the role of and use of stunts as a campaign approach.

Over the weekend of the summit I saw how what I’m calling the ‘summit stunt cycle’ can work itself ou. Given you can’t actually advocate directly to decision-makers at the G7, so much of the influencing that happens during a summit like the G7 through the media – those running the summit, in this case, the UK government, want to use the media to portray the summit as a success – ‘look we’ve got leaders to donate 1 bn vaccines’, while those of us on the outside want to suggest otherwise – ‘a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity‘.

And that’s where stunts can be really helpful.

They provide an opportunity to get the media interested in your message or perspective, by providing a hook for a photo or a conversation with a journalist, which can lead media interviews, which can lead to help set expectations for what ‘success’ from the summit would look like, causing your target to respond – hopefully by raising ambition – and so you get to go round the cycle again.

Perhaps the G7 is a unique summit, but the reality is that photo moments or stunts can be a useful tool for campaigners, so here are 5 top reflections on what makes a successful summit stunt;

1. Be informed by the official agenda – it’s very hard to drive a news cycle at a Summit as so much of it is dominated by what’s on the official agenda – so think about how your stunt can add to that. One organisation, Oxfam, has done this absolutely brilliantly for the last 15 years.

Since 2005, they’ve been taking their Big Heads of G7 leaders to summit after summit and serving up brilliant photo after brilliant photo. So this G7 the focus was going to be focused on vaccines and climate – so that’s what the Oxfam stunts were about. Perfectly providing a picture – and an alternative message – to what the government wanted the message to be.

2. A good stunt is simple – the adage that a ‘picture paints a thousand words’ is so true when it comes to stunts. It can be really easy to over think or overcomplicated – something that sounds great in a brainstorm but doesn’t translate into a stunt. And the reality is that if you build on the ‘summit stunt cycle’ you don’t want to overthink it.

How much did a giant blimp of Boris and Biden actually have to do with vaccines or climate? Not that much, but perhaps it didn’t matter – it said ‘these are the leaders that matter and we need them to do more than just turn up for it to be a successful meeting’

3. Plan to fill the quieter moments – There are hours of coverage at a summit that need to be filled by journalist and broadcasts, perhaps even more so in the days of live blogs and 24-hour news – and only so many photos of leaders on a beach, at a BBQ or around a table.

Don’t plan to do your stunt when it’ll be clashing with leaders press conferences, but do think about early in the morning, or in the evening, when the official agenda is quieter. 

We got the media out on a press boat at 8am and got lots of coverage for the blimp just because nothing else was happening at the Summit. The Vigil we held was at the end of the day and ran on many news channels over the whole night, as it was one of the last images from the summit that day.

4. Be adaptable – this is why I’m so in awe of the Big Heads because they can easily be reused to work for the moment. The dynamics of the summit can change across a weekend, so planning a stunt for the final day which can’t be easily adapted is risking the summit staying on track – having something more adaptable means as the summit goes on your can help to adjust your approach to feed into that summit stunt cycle.

But you also need to accept that not every stunt will get coverage– but as with much campaigning, it’s better to try and not succeed than not try and wish you had.

5. Work together – Good stunts work because they bring everyone together, you need media colleagues to get out and sell it in to the media, you need spokespeople who are preapred to do endless interviews to share the message, you need social media colleagues to push the idea out on your own channels, and you want to work with event experts to make – it’s a perfect example of when campaigners need to be the glue to hold it all.

Holding successful events with MPs in Parliament

Conference season is upon us and many campaigners will be packing their bags to head off to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.
But  as Chloe Stables notes in an excellent post about making the most of attending conference they can be ‘expensive, hectic and occasionally frustrating‘ but other options for engaging with MPs do exist.
Back in March, I was involved in organising an event to mark World Water Day, which at the time one colleague musedwas a better use of resources that organising an fringe meeting at Party Conference.
A modest objective of getting 12-15 MPs along was set but in the end we got over 40 MPs came to join in, a great success and far more than we would have got attending a fringe event at conference.

David Burrowes MP at the event
One of the 40 MPs who attended the event

The idea was simple. Invite MPs to join us on and walk 100m with a jerry can on a course we’d set up in Victoria Tower Gardens, it was a symbolic act to remember the fact that many people have to walk up to 6km to get access to something we expect to get from our taps, and we hoped that it would help to build links with Parliamentarians who could act as champions for the issue in the coming year.
You can read more about the event here, but it got me thinking about what some of the elements that made the event a success.
Perhaps they’re nothing new but I wanted to share them to see what insight others have about what works when looking to engage MPs in events in Parliament.
1. Provide a photo opportunity – It’s a cliché but the offer of a photo and a pre-prepared press release undoubtedly encouraged some MPs to join us. We set up a water pump and promised to get the release to them within 3 hours. It was nice to use this as a way of helping the MP demonstrate the interest they had in the issue.
2. Targeted the few not the many – The decision was taken early in the planning not to actively invite all MPs, but to identify and approach a smaller number of influential MPs on the topic, for example those on key select committees or those who’d shown an interest in the issue previously. We hoped that our invitation was more likely to get noticed, and we already had a relationship with some which made it easier to follow up with.
3. Followed up via Twitter – Ahead of the event, we got in touch with those MPs who used twitter to remind them to come down. At least one mentioned that this had made the difference about them attending or not.
4. Used our supporters – We invited our supporters who lived in the constituencies of MPs we had an interest in to attend, but had realistic expectations about the number who’d be able to join us on a Tuesday. We also encouraged them to get in touch and invite their MP along anyhow. Again, a number of MPs mentioned that this was one of the reasons they joined us.
5. Made the most of our contacts – We found that amongst an extended group of colleagues had a number had contact with friends who worked for MPs or who could raise the profile of the event inside Parliament. A few well placed e-mails and calls from them certainly helped to increase the numbers attending. A reminder that sometimes it’s useful to use your personal contacts.
6. Kept the event going for two hours – Allowing MPs a longer window of time to come along seemed to yield dividends in reducing the number of MPs who simply couldn’t join us because of diary clashes.
What successful events have you organised with MPs? Is Conference a useful forum to engage with MPs? What have you found works and what hasn’t?
Some of this post originally appeared on the NCVO Campaigning Forum.

May the Force be with Greenpeace

Greenpeace have launched a fantastic new campaign today (Tuesday) – ‘Volkswagen. The Dark Side’ targeting car manufacture VW to ‘turn away from the Dark Side and give our planet a chance’.
It’s been going less than 12 hours, but already they’ve had over 38,000 people send a message to VW bosses, over 10,000 likes on their Facebook page, #vwdarkside has been trending in London for much of the days and thousands have viewed their excellent video spoof of hugely popular VW Star Wars film.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXndQuvOacU]
Here are the five reasons why I think it’s been a fantastic campaign launch.
1 – An inspired location – Old Street has also been trending all day as well. Why? It was the location that Greenpeace chose to launch the campaign. No VW garage in sight just the home of Silicon Roundabout and undoubtably more tweeters than any part of London. Dot a few Stormtroopers around the place and you’ve got lots of digitally connected people talking about your campaign on twitter.
2 – A competitive edge – The campaign doesn’t simply want you to send a message to the VW CEO, it wants you to recruit more friends (or Jedi’s) to join the campaign. You’re given your own training page and the more friends who join, take action on your recommendation or view your special page the more points you get, which helps you unlock new characters from Star Wars. The element of competition is inspired, and has meant that its been passed on a huge number of times.
3 – A everyday brand – No doubt a multitude of other targets who could leverage the changes that Greenpeace would like to see, but VW are a globally recognisable brand and one who have tried to build a green image. Thus they make ideal targets. Moreover the launch is showing that the decisions that need to be made to stop climate change are, in part in the hands of companies like VW. The campaign also makes a direct pitch to those who drive VWs in the sign-up page, a really nice touch.
4 – A great message – This isn’t simply a ‘aren’t VW really horrible and nasty’ campaign, rather a campaign to persuade VW to play its part in helping to save the world. The language that the website uses it’s all about encouraging VW to stop ‘using its influence to prevent us getting the laws we need to protect our planet and boost our economy’.
5 – Everyone loves Star Wars – With over 40 million views, the original VW advert has been hugely popular so by basing a campaign on this Greenpeace is already tapping into popular culture. It’s also a huge amount of fun and its impressive how Greenpeace have carried the Star Wars theme through every element of the launch (for example their policy report is entitled ‘The Dark Side of Volkswagen’ and is introduced by R2D2!).
What do you think? Are you as enthused about the campaign launch as I am? Have you seen it all before? 
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When campaigning meets art

Nice campaign tactic from Campaign Against Arms Trade
Stand up in Trafalgar Square
There has been a lot of publicity for the Antony Gormley “living sculpture” on the fourth (missing) plinth in Trafalgar Square . This is a great opportunity for an anti-arms trade campaigner to stand up beside the military “heroes” already there (even if only for an hour). Why not register online at http://www.oneandother.co.uk/ if you are chosen let us know so we can support you in your hour of glory.

Great campaign stunts

If the hype is to be believed Ben Southall has ‘the best job in the world’. He’s the winner of a recent competition run by the Tourism Queensland to find a new caretaker for Hamilton Island off the coast of Australia. The Guardian points out that the publicity that the island has got also makes the competition a inspired PR stunt generating millions of pounds of publicity.
The competition has made it into a list of the top 50 PR stunts in the world , but a look at the list shows that you don’t need to have a big budget or be a global brand as a number of civil society campaigns also make the list including;
WWF’s Earth Hour – the annual event that sees millions of people around the world turn of non-essential lights for an hour.
The Peanut Protest – student Mark McGowan pushes a peanut with his nose to Downing Street to protest about student debt.
Fathers4Justice – with its headline grabbing if controversial stunts.
Evidence that a well thought out PR stunt delivered at the right moment can have as much impact as a million pound campaign from a well know brand.

Love and hate – a contrast in approaches to climate campaigns in the UK and US

Justin Roswlatt, BBC’s Newsnights ‘Ethical Man’ had an excellent piece on last nights programme about the new approach that the Obama administration is taking to win over environmental activists.
It’s fascintating to see how the administration is reaching out to these radical students to get them to be ambassadors in their communities. One can only imagine how excited the activists must feel after spending so many years in the wilderness under the Bush presidency.
The slot started with an interview with Ed Miliband, the UK Climate Change minister discussing the way that the police have been violating the rights of UK activists in the last few weeks (although some would argue that it shows that the movement is making an impact because it’s attracting attention).
Miliband once against affirmed the right to protest at being at the heart of our democratic rights and talked about the importance of creating a ‘Make Poverty History’ like movement on the issue. It might be needed but the movement won’t grow if the supporters of organisations like Christian Aid get hastled by the police at campaign events.

Lessons from the Third Runway

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.

Have we taken the fun out of Flash Mobs?

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.