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.
It has long been believed that getting an MP to write to minister is a more effective than sending postcards directly to a government department. Why? Because protocol dictates that a letter from an MPs requires a ministerial response, but how many items of correspondence are government departments getting?
This ministerial statement from last month gives details of the number of ministerial correspondence (letters from MPs and Lords) each department receives in 2008. The top 10 departments and agencies are;
1. UK Border Agency – 51,905
2. Department of Health – 20,242
3. Department for Children, Schools and Families – 15,810
4. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – 14526
5. HM Treasury – 14,057
6. Foreign and Commonwealth Office – 10,334
7. Department for Communities and Local Government – 10,227
8. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – 9,875
9. Department for Transport – 8,393
10. Child Support Agency – 7,313
A couple of others to note included DECC which received over 2,500 letters in the few months after it was created, and DFID which recieved 3,100.
Many of the letters recieved by agencies (like the UK Border Agency where a large number of the enquiries will be individual imigration and asylum requests) from MPs won’t ever be seen by a minister so will have little or no political impact.
Taking out agencies the average government department receives just under 7,000 letters per year. When you divide that between 4 ministers (an average number of ministers per department based on a quick look at this Cabinet Office list) it means that each minister is dealing with about 34 letters each week but many will be signing many more.
This is a useful briefing for civil servants about how to draft responses to ministerial correspondence.
John Stewart spoke at the latest CASS Business School Charity Talk event. In a talk entitled ‘Campaigning with Effectiveness and Flair‘.
John is Chief Exec of HACAN, the largest voluntary organisation dedicated to those campaigning on behalf of those affected by aircraft flight paths, and chair of Airport Watch, a broader coalition of organisations campaigning against the issue of airport expansion.
In his talk he unpacked some of the reasons why the campaign was so successful at dominating the discussions and debates around the building of a 3rd runway. I’ve written before about the Heathrow campaign and some of the reasons I think were elements of its success but Stewart provided a first hand account from the inside. The KnowHow NonProfit website, which is linked to CASS Business School, has some excellent resources from the evening (which also includes Brian Lamb’s presentation which I’ll blog about later in the week).
Stewart drew out three main lessons from the campaign and argued that these were also based on things that they’d learnt from previous defeats that HACAN had experienced over Terminals 4 and 5. A good reminder to always learn from campaigns that don’t succeed!
Bring together the widest possible coalition
In previous campaigns, HACAN had drawn together a small number of residents groups and local authorities around Heathrow but the 3rd runway campaign managed to build a much bigger coalition not just of the usual suspects but a much bigger range of organisations, such an environmental groups, direct action groups alongside MPs, local authorities and residents groups.
Stewart said that this strengthened the campaign enormously, but also introduced new issues (climate change wasn’t a central part of the previous campaigns which had focused more on quality of life issues). Stewart shared the tactics that the coalition had used to keep together what must have been a disparate group of people, including regular face-to-face meetings, which meant that people got to know each other on a personal basis.
You have to admire the campaign for managing to bring together local Conservative councillors to direct action activists from Plane Stupid, but Stewart argued that united around a common aim to stop a 3rd runway was the strength of the coalition. The range of tactics meaning that it made it much difficult for authorities to know how to respond because their tactics couldn’t simply be put into a box or be predicted.
Don’t dodge the economic arguments
The campaign realised from its previous defeats that it had to engage with the central issue and argument that the government was using to justify building the runway, that the UK economy needed it. In previous campaigns, Stewart implied they’d focus on quality of life arguments that although important to those involved in the campaign didn’t resonate with decision makers who could suggest that these were the arguments of NIMBYs.
Stewart shared how they commissioned independent research on the economic argument, which was undertaken by an independent and respected consultancy firm which the EU also used, so it couldn’t be immediately dismissed by government as a being written by a pro-environment consultant. The campaign found that this report was vital in helping to counter the central arguments of the government, and convincing the opposition parties to get involved . A good lesson to remember the importance of independent research in supporting your campaign asks.
Engage in pro-active campaigning
Early on the campaign realised its tactics couldn’t simply be limited to working through the official structures that the process would provide, like official enquiries which was its previous approach. Stewart argued that if these processes were effective at changing things they’d soon change the structures, perhaps a slightly cynical approach but the argument that they don’t favour community campaigns who have little of experience of making quasi-legal arguments is a good one.
Instead the campaign focused their campaigning on what communities are good at doing, talking to each other, and mobilising around more traditional tactics like marches and rallies. This was successfully combined with more traditional lobbying using a cross-party group of MPs, and excellent cheap media activities, like flash-mobs at the opening of terminal 5.
At the end of the presentation, Stewart spoke about how the campaign had worked with direct action groups. He argued that they’d been good for the campaign, and an important part of the campaign mix. While the campaign didn’t want everyone taking direct action, they helped to prevent the campaign from easily being boxed by the government. Listening to Stewart talk about the role of groups like Plane Stupid in the campaign, its clear they have a central role, and its fascinating to see how these groups co-existed and even shared platforms with those with much more conservative approaches to policy change.
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.
Should campaigners be concerned at the rapid death of local newspapers?
As the Guardian reported on Monday many titles are looking to make significant cuts as sales of their publications fall and advertising starts to dry up. While most of the big regional titles don’t appear to be at risk of closing in the near future, they’re facing a bleak future.
Living in London its easy to overlook the importance and reach of many of the regional papers, some like the Yorkshire Post, Eastern Daily Mail, Manchester Evening News and the Kent Messenger have impressive circulation figures. While weekly titles and the free papers that are delivered through letter boxes are read by millions more. While campaigns are often disappointed when they register little or no national media coverage, acres of local and regional coverage could reach as many people.
Local papers are also trusted source of news and information. I’ve heard of surveys that indicate that the letters page of a local paper is the most trusted section of any paper, because they are seen to speak for a community in the way other news sources can’t. Moreover for many MPs local papers provide an important way of communicating with constituents, as well as acting as a barometer for local opinion. MPs might not have time to read all the national papers, but you can be sure that their likely to at least browse the pages of their local paper, which means they’re vital places to be trying to place our campaign messages.
So we should be concerned about the potential death of local newspapers. In the short-term, a reduction in the number of journalists might even be good news for campaigns, as those who remain will increasingly be looking for the easy win that lightly rewriting a campaign press release provides.
Over time some will evolve looking to place more of the emphasis on digital media, but the decline of the local paper from our newsagents shelves means the death of powerful tool in our campaigning toolkit.
UPDATED – This article from Labour List argues losinig local papers means a loss of local democracy
Using the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve found out the following about the number of campaign actions that DFID get each year.
Total number of actions and delivery method
Year Postcards E-mails Letters Petition signatures Total
2007 34,215 (38%) 31,514 (35%) 4503 (5%) 19,808 (22%) 90,040
2008 42,796(40%) 41, 683(38%) 4049(4%) 19,612 (18%) 108,140
Breakdown by Topic (2008)
HIV and AIDS 45,583 (42%)
Debt 22,675 (21%)
Trade 20,811 (19%)
Water 8137 (8%)
Health issues (excluding HIV and AIDS). 2962 (3%)
Rainforests 2152 (2%)
Fulfil G8 promises 993 (1%)
Burma 988 (1%)
Various other development issues, where we received less than 750 items 3839 (3% )
Breakdown by Organisation (2008)
Stop AIDS Campaign 33, 229 (31%)
Jubilee Debt Campaign 20,371 (19%)
Trade Justice Movement 13,809 (13%)
Tearfund 12,171 (11%)
Traidcraft 5321 (5%)
World Development Movement (WDM) 5451 (5%)
Oxfam 2,001 (2%)
ActionAid 2138 (2%)
UNICEF 2678 (2%)
MICAH Challenge 1039 (1%)
World Vision 1097 (1%)
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (Burma) 862 (1%)
Various other organisations, where we received less than 750 items 7973 (7%)
Undoubtedly their is some double counting in the lists, but it still makes for interesting reading, and shows the relative mobilising strength of a number of the main campaigning organisations in the UK. Christian Aid are perhaps a surprise exception from the list, but looking at their website they focused almost exclusively on Climate Change in 2008.
It shows the fact that some coalitions are better at getting their members to run their actions. For example the 45,000 actions on HIV and AIDS of which about 25% didn’t come from Stop AIDS coalition, against the 22,000 on debt most of which came from the Jubilee Debt Campaign (although its shows the influence the campaign still has that they can mobilise that many supporters to take action).
Finally it raises the question how much did the different organisations make of the opportunities to use their postcards to influence policy. It’s all very well to have lots of postcards but they don’t do much to influence policy if they just end up in the DFID postroom. Looking at the list, I think Stop AIDS Campaign are one of the best examples of how to use their actions to maximum effect, holding a high-profile hand in the autumn with Ivan Lewis MP to hand over 14,000 actions on patent pools, and running a significant campaign earlier in the year around DFIDs new three year strategy on the issue. Its a good lesson to remember that without an effective strategy to use the actions you’ve generated
I’ve made a number of other requests and I hope to be able to share them with readers of this blog in the coming months, along with further analysis.
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.