To celebrate the launch of the IF campaign, I got a copy of Nicolas Sireau’s ‘Make Poverty History’ (after several years of being put off by the absurd price).
One interesting thing in it is the anatomy of the different reactions to the G8’s post-Gleneagles communique:
‘an insult to … campaigners … a disaster for the world’s poor’ World Development Movement
‘the beginning, not the end … welcome progress … but the outcome … has fallen short of the hopes of millions’ Oxfam
‘the greatest G8 summit there has ever been for Africa’ Bob Geldof
These different responses are noteworthy for all many reasons – what I’m interested in here is how campaigners publicly react to signs of possible or actual progress.
The line taken by Oxfam on this occasion is, I think it’s fair to say, broadly the traditional one that NGOs have tended to use. The underlying idea being that you give credit whilst closing down space for complacency.
Indeed, Sireau found that the Oxfam ‘balanced’ reaction went down best with focus group respondents, who were sceptical of Geldof’s unalloyed praise and felt that WDM’s critique was counterproductive.
But it seem that these days it’s much more about emphasising the victory, more along the Geldof end of the spectrum.
I’m partly basing this judgment on the number of “you did it” type emails I get, congratulating me for achieving various campaigning results.
Campaigning is about the sum of the parts. So, in principle, it’s great that actions, however small, are recognised and valued.
Plus, I know from my own experience as a campaigner – and doing evaluations, have heard from supporters enough times – that communications with supporters can (often) be patchy, with people sometimes not really knowing what has happened or been achieved. Clear and timely feedback is of basic importance.
But I still wonder whether the general tenor of these messages is symptomatic – and possibly reinforcing – of some trends in campaigning that are not entirely positive. With campaigning becoming more ‘professional’ – but drawing on a marketing sensibility in ways that may not be fully sensitive to the context.
In particular, this way of thinking and communicating about campaigning seems connected to a growing pressure to show results.
Results are good obviously. Though an unbalanced focus on them might not be. Especially if it’s locked into a ‘quick win’ culture and discourse.
Again, if you can achieve your goal without a long, hard slog, great. And the greater ability that technology creates, to coalesce quickly around an issue, in some cases does lead to opportunity for greater momentum and traction: the EDF petition looks like a recent good example of this.
But campaigning is about power, and given it generally stacks up negatively, transformational change does tend to take significant time and investment. The Arms Trade Treaty – an exemplary, inspirational achievement of campaigning that will change the lives of millions – that was passed at the UN last week, for example, was the fruit of twenty years’ disciplined, astute and multi-faceted campaigning.
Almost all of the “you did it” emails I get are based on a much simpler prescription, and cause and effect narrative.
And I worry that these, aggregated, may be boxing campaigning into an over-simplistic corner.
These days, politicians tend to choose to pretend (a) that everything is solvable (b) by them (c) without difficult trade offs. Campaigning organisations may be moving into a similar sort of space, a world of simple victories.
Attractive in the short-term, it’s an approach that may engender cynicism and disengagement over time. Anyone vaguely active must be getting so many of these “you did it” messages. They might work individually, but once they start to pile up in your inbox, diminishing returns surely set in.
These messages too can reflect what seems like a growing culture of over-claiming.
I see a number of cases where both (a) the extent to which there is an actual victory, and/or (b) the nature of the campaign’s role in contributing to it are questionable.
And at worst, they can even play into the hands of opponents.
Sometimes it’s in the target’s interest to make it look like they have retreated: a way of taking the sting out of the campaign. Meanwhile, the campaign group gets its desired ‘victory’.
This dynamic came into play recently when – in response to concerted campaigning – the government basically reiterated its previous decision to close Lewisham A&E but came up with the weaselly notion of rebranding it as “a smaller A&E service”. 38 Degrees seized upon this as campaign progress – and was criticised by leading Save Lewisham A&E campaigners for doing so.
Getting the balance right in communicating campaign success involves careful calibration – motivating and encouraging support whilst remaining authentic; acknowledging progress whilst exposing remaining limitations, etc
Getting this right is tricky enough but becomes more difficult if campaigning – for branding reasons, and to meet internal pressures – is being pulled towards a simplified discourse of success that doesn’t comfortably tally with the full reality.