Ignore the idiots with placards

Idiots with placards are given too much visibility. Every time some contentious issue makes the headlines there’ll be 20 of them holding up home-made signs bemoaning a loss of morals, demanding that someone be banished from somewhere, or proclaiming the apocalypse. And rather than be ignored, they’ll feature prominently in reporting of whatever event they crashed, and somehow be declared the face of public opinion.

Same thing online. Anything written in a prominent blog will undoubtedly attract scores of nut-jobs declaring that the author is an evil, brainless heathen whose opinions would spell the end of humanity as we know it; and yet normal people respond to these morons and even often refer to them in follow-up content as the face of public opinion. In my line of work it equates to clients saying: they all hate us, just look at the 20 critical tweets and blog comments.

It’s too easy to make a lot of noise and somehow become the face of an issue. A plea: ignore the nut-jobs, or we end up giving them credibility and lure more nut-jobs into the public space (think the fringes of the Tea-Party in the US.) Let them have their say, but let’s please not forget most people are moderate and sensible. What’s real public opinion? A million people on the streets of London to protest against an impending war. Even better, results of surveys where a proper cross-section of people are polled.

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The importance of keeping your issue off the left-right axis

One of the worst things that can happen to your issue is that it becomes politicised i.e. one political side decides to take a stand on it and the other side takes the opposite position in response.

Plenty of issues don’t actually neatly fit the right-left divide. Frankly, they’re too complex to be easily compartmentalised (I’ve had a rant about this before here) and as such political parties or groups don’t have a clear position on them. But that doesn’t matter to cheeky politicians: when they’ve decided that they can score a win with their constituents, they’ll take a stand on an issue. They may then carry the rest of their party with them and make it very hard for you as a campaigner to get your point across, no matter how solid your arguments may be, because positions have been entrenched on the left-right axis. You’ve lost control: your issue may now fall prey to the whims of political skirmishes rather than develop through a process governed by reality and logic.

So what do you do? Hope for the best (!) and monitor very carefully so you know when and how politicisation might happen before it actually does. And make sure you have a contingency plan.

Plus don’t accelerate the process yourself. If you’re a key player on your issue, don’t tick off one side or the other if you can avoid it. How? Approach your issue from both liberal (in the American sense of the word) and conservative angles; gratify the values of both your centre-right and centre-left audiences. Sounds odd, but it actually works on a wide range of issues e.g. your manufacturing process might both be great for profit margins and will employ people in a marginalised community; your new product might have been invented by an entrepreneur who benefited from a tax break and have a low carbon footprint.

And if your issue still becomes politicised? Then the contingency plan mentioned above may become easier to implement because your relatively neutral position so far may ensure more balanced treatment than you might otherwise expect.

Stupid and illogical left-right splits

Population growth and 10% economic growth in fast-developing countries will result in billions more people consuming at the rate of rich-world baby-boomers within a few decades. We’ll have to change our eating habits in the long-run, but until then, how on earth are we going to produce enough food to feed a billion middle class Indians and Chinese who have suddenly developed a taste for hamburger? Meanwhile, a complex concoction of trade regimes, population growth, urbanisation and increasing temperatures mean that food security is an ever growing threat in Africa; but in this case not because the new middle classes are demanding hamburger, but because hunger is still real (more on all of this at Citizen Renaissance here.) So what can we do about it? We can further develop smart methods of farming to increase yields perhaps. And yet if you’re a left-winger, you’ll think GMOs or other farming technologies are Satan’s spawn. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re a left-winger, you want to feed people in developing countries.

If the worst predictions come true, we’ll experience a 5-6ºC temperature increase by the end of the century, putting vast swaths of the world under water and destroying ecosystems and possibly the nature pyramid to god knows what effect. But climate-change scepticism has become a standard bearing right-wing issue: if you’re right-wing, you’ll claim it’s all a load of tosh. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re right-wing you should be just as worried as a left-winger if there’s even a slight possibility that even the most rosy scenario regarding climate change may come true.

Immigration rates in Europe aren’t really out of control as the populist press tend to claim. Three other trends are however. Declining birth rates, people reaching retirement age and Europe’s pathetic economic competitiveness. Right-wingers claim to be pro-business, pro-growth and pro-wealth. And yet right-wingers tend to be, if not always hostile, at least very wary of immigration. Again, that doesn’t make sense. Who is going to buy and build things? Where is the next generation of innovators going to come from if half our population is retired?

I’m fully aware that all three issues – and many others like them – are spuriously ideological in some way i.e. a right-winger will make a political argument for why they are anti-immigrant or a climate-change sceptic; while a left-winger can just as easily frame their hostility towards GMOs in genuinely left-wing terms.

The point I’m trying to make is that most issues are far too important and complex to fit neat political demarcations. And yet politicians and the media who support them are all too ready to politicise them to score an easy win. They’re taking advantage of the age-old human instinct whereby people are comforted by thinking that everything can be defined by us or them / right or wrong; so if the opposition has taken a stand on an issue, the response is to take the opposite view, rather than debating or perhaps even – shock, horror – agreeing with it.

It’s not all bad though. At European level, the strongly consensus-based political model makes complete polarisation difficult. Meanwhile, year after year, voters throughout Europe are increasingly struggling to tell the difference between parties (which I happen to think is a good thing) while age-old political affiliations based purely on family or geography are dying out. But given that the left-right divide can still characterise epoch-defining issues like food security, immigration and climate change, we still have some way to go.

Digital advocacy nearing the real deal

Digital advocacy has been effective on issues that capture the public imagination because the web is an effective grassroots mobilisation tool. From whale hunting to GMOs, pressure groups and concerned citizens have expressed anger, spread the word and mobilised likeminded people. Were Greenpeace to announce a big-time campaign tomorrow on, say, mink farming in Europe, it could be web-centred, with offline elements operating around it.

However, the vast majority of advocacy issues don’t capture the public imagination: nobody cares; media pays no attention. Until a short time ago, these were the sort of issues where advocacy was done off the radar i.e. primarily with stakeholders and policy-makers sitting down face to face. There’d be no large-scale media campaign or the like in support because it wouldn’t have been worth the effort seeing as all stakeholders were a phone-call away.

Digital advocacy is now nearing the real deal for niche issues as well. It is ubiquitous enough – even in public policy land (see Fleishman’s EP Digital Trends or Edelman’s Capital Staffers’ index) – to work as a direct advocacy tool.

In practice, if you plan and execute the online element of your campaign well, you can safely assume that you’ll reach relevant policy-makers directly, as well as engage and/or mobilise the aforementioned stakeholders that are just a phone-call away, using primarily online channels. By no means does that mean that traditional advocacy or media relations are a dying breed, but they can now be supported, enhanced and sped up no end. Exciting times ahead.

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Wonder why it's so easy for a politician to go from nutty fringe to moderate?

Quick thought. I was recently speaking to someone who works for a fairly outspoken politician (to say the least) who said that the politician in question is currently considering whether to communicate in a slightly more mellow manner so as to attract a different type of voter.

It’s startling how thin the line between “moderate” and “nutty fringe” can be: unless you actually are a nutty fringe politician, whether you’re seen as one or the other is largely down to how you communicate. But what’s really odd is how we as constituents are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and gloss over the past once the switch has been made. I’ll admit that I fit into that category: in 1994, Gianfranco Fini said Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the 20 century; now he’s changed his tone and is a reasonable centrist who speaks some sense amongst the throng of crude and worthless populists that make up the Italian ruling majority – and I believe him.

What a great benefit to politicians looking to make the grade though. Whether of the left or of the right, they can cause a stir amongst “party bases” by stating their position in the most outlandish terms possible, then repackage themselves as a more moderate force once they have a following and a media presence  (i.e. saying the same things just in a more conciliatory tone and with less gesticulation.) Hey presto, they attract a different breed of supporter virtually from one day to the next! Wish it were that easy for the rest of us.

Are NGOs still the eCampaign benchmark?

The story goes that NGOs were able to mobilise support and spread their message online over a decade ago, when the corporates they were up against barely had any web presence to speak of. This is cited as one of the reasons for their ascendancy in the political power game.

How are they faring these days? This is by no means a long analytical piece: I haven’t combed through hundreds of NGO sites from which I’ll cite dozens of examples; but in short, my general feeling is that NGOs aren’t as effective online as they used to be. To some extent, it’s probably their fault. Some have amazing stories – especially from the field – but are not using social media as well as they could to tell them. Sometimes they use the tools but not in an integrated manner e.g. offline campaigns aren’t backed up online and vice-versa. Big NGOs are often too split along country or regional lines: rather than sharing material across platforms they’re keeping it separate, which is pointless as well as detrimental. Also, some of these same big-time NGOs have sites that are far too pristine and corporate-looking. Meanwhile, others have crammed too much into their toolkit, meaning that they do a little of everything badly rather than a few things well; and others, especially small-time single issue pressure groups, are not using cheap and cheerful tools nearly as much as they should (although I hasten to add that some do!)

To some extent, their loss of the best practice mantle is not really their doing. With their mammoth budgets, their corporate adversaries have played catch-up very well by developing credible CSR programmes and hiring smart agencies that do great communications online, with plenty of effective social media in the mix and winning the search-ranking battle.

Having said that all that, the spirit of the NGO is alive and well, and their message is stronger than ever. However, it’s not necessarily them that’s delivering it. Firstly, “regular folk” are often more militant than most NGOs nowadays, and they’re very active online in forums, blogs etc. I did a little bit of research last week in response to a report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK which claims that organic is no healthier than regular produce, and was astonished to see how many people (with no affiliation to official groups) were taking a stand against the FSA. And they were pretty angry. Secondly, corporations themselves are making noise about the sort of issues only NGOs seemed interested in until recently.

Conclusion? Having mobilised people to such an extent over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where they have actually radically altered the common man’s sensibilities over a range of issues and leading ultimately to far more responsibility in corporate-land (as well as politico-land of course) is no doubt a great triumph and impressive legacy. It probably might not seem to matter so much that they’re not good with Twitter: that’d be taking a myopic view of the global challenges we still face and which they can contribute to. Still, I think they should brush up a little online.

Reaching a legislator before and now


A few months ago, I posted a simple diagram to highlight that organisations should not overlook the importance of being able to communicate directly to their audiences. I’ve taken that diagram a little further to show how tactics to reach legislators have developed  in the age of the Internet.

The two key elements that are different now are: 1) being able to reach legislators via content and search i.e. organisation X publishes on its website, blogs, posts a release on an eWire etc. and a legislator picks it up via Google; and 2) the main indirect influencer i.e. the press via media relations has now expanded to include all sorts of other influencers e.g. bloggers, while far more people can become engaged in political activism that might influence legislators (online advocacy via communities, ePetitions and so on.)

Any thoughts? Have I missed anything?