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How I learnt about campaigns
How I Learned About Campaigns
What I've learned about campaigns has come mostly from doing them and working with others in communications, many of whom have a professional background in it (unlike myself).
When I was young my dad gave me a popular book on psychology called The Hidden Persuaders1 , by Vance Packard. Along with a Penguin paperback, The Shocking History of Advertising2 , they provided my first inklings that communication wasn't simply a natural and neutral process but an intervention in human affairs in itself, and one that could determine important outcomes.
I never set out to become a campaigner or communicator. As a child I was inspired by tv naturalist David Attenborough and wanted to save animals (and or be a helicopter pilot). Getting involved in voluntary conservation work introduced me to the local realities of politics - and some campaigns against destruction of special wildlife sites when the M25 was built, and against gravel extraction destroying old meadows, as at Frays Farm in the Colne Valley, west of London.
Following misguided advice that it was necessary to become a scientist in order to follow a career in conservation, I aimed to become an ecologist. I enjoyed plant ecology. I studied lichens, which introduced me to the science of air pollution, though I lacked the systematic approach needed to be a really effective scientist.
British Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher diverted me from a career in academe by introducing a series of cut-backs in the UK Higher Educational system and research. More and more of my time was spent writing articles for magazines such as Vole (where I learned the rudiments of a news story from Richard North), or working with friends such as Charlie Pye-Smith and Bill Adams, to edit Ecos published by BANC, the British Association of Nature Conservationists. We started BANC as a ginger-group trying to radicalise nature conservation - we picked its rather pompous name as we thought it made it sound serious. Sorry BANC.
By organising BANC campaigns - on things such as forestry and taxation and subsidies and land-drainage - and helping the lobbying efforts of Wildlife Link, a consortium of UK NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) set up by Peter Melchett to coordinate lobbying over what became the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, I learnt more about national politics. Around the same time I helped found the London Wildlife Trust and in dealing with planning and other issues in the 26 Boroughs of Greater London, learned much from contact with local politicians such as Bob Smyth and Ken Livingstone. My first major photocall was to organise one of Ken's first public events as GLC Leader when he put up a nest box for us on a tree outside County Hall.
My experience has been that almost everything useful that can be applied at national and international levels is best learnt in the basic face-to-face realities of local politics.
At the London Wildlife Trust we organised campaigns such as to save the Chiswick Triangle (from office development), and with others to stop destruction of Oxleas Wood (for a road) and city-wide surveys of foxes, among other things.
I went as a Countryside Campaigner to Friends of the Earth (FoE). FoE was then Chaired by Des Wilson, a high-octane campaigner with a reputation for results. In my eyes that made it worth signing up. In those days joining a group like FoE was seen as the end rather than the beginning of a career: incredulous friends from science told me (correctly, I guess) that my 'credibility' would never recover. FoE's fundraising was never its strong point, and as the most recent recruit I was redirected to campaign on pesticides and acid rain because funds were available for that. At FoE I learnt a lot about driving change by focussing public attention on an unacceptable problem, be it straw burning as a symptom industrial farming, the impact of plantation forestry or victims of spray drift. Greenpeace tried to persuade me to work for them but I declined, on the entirely truthful grounds that I didn't think I had the courage to do actions. At the time, the organisation also had a terrible reputation for internal blood-letting which put me off.
I then spent a few years at WWF International's headquarters in Gland, Switzerland - based in an unprepossessing grey concrete low-rise on the edge of an industrial estate. There was a great view of Mont Blanc when it wasn't foggy. I got the job because Mark Carwardine, a friend who worked at WWF UK, turned it down after writing a book on Icelandic wildlife that turned out to be more profitable than he expected. We were in Helsinki to lobby at UN talks on long-range transboundary air pollution, when Mark got a call asking him, and said no. "Know anyone else?" they asked - he said he might, asked me, and I said yes. Once WWF's exhaustive head-hunting process was completed I arrived to find that my predecessor (a nice American) had changed his job-title to the 'Global Public Awareness Coordinator'. This described the ambition but not the resources available to the post, let alone the results. I changed it back to 'Campaigns and Publications Officer'.
In between editing the Annual Review and helping organise a new logo, I set about trying to persuade the dozens of WWF National Organisations to cooperate on issues-based campaigning. In the 1980s we ran campaigns on acid rain, tropical forests, European agriculture and wetlands. Some of the techniques in the book "How To Win Campaigns", I developed while at WWF. After FoE, WWF was a culture shock. A few weeks in I remember making some complaint about the photocopying facilities and being astonished a few mornings later by the arrival of an engineer complete with photocopying machine, enquiring as to where I wanted it plugged in.
In those days WWF International was very bureaucratic. I couldn't understand why I would need a secretary until I discovered that access to things like the stationery cupboard was almost impossible to anyone outside the secretarial class. A huge manual of procedures, even for picnics, spoke of an organisation which had grown to the stage where rules tended to substitute for trust.
UN-style, there seemed to be several outgoing communications directors who had not quite left. One was an American former Reuters journalist (of the grizzled variety), called Don Allan, who still insisted on using a manual typewriter and wore cowboy boots. One day Don read something I has written and asked me if I knew why it was "no good" and would be rejected. "No", I didn't. It was he explained, because there was nothing wrong with it. "An effective draft" he told me "needs at least three things wrong with it. I find it works best if you put in one spelling mistake, one factual error, and one piece of bad grammar - that way everybody gets the satisfaction of having improved your draft without doing any damage to it". No doubt this wasn't original advice but 26 drafts of the Annual Review later, and after the help of a German colleague who insisted at each stage on changing almost every instance of "and" to "as well as" (with some predictably interesting results - try it), I began to see its value. WWF International provided a lot of valuable campaigning experiences - mostly from internal politics.
Later, when I worked with Greenpeace, I was surprised to find that it and WWF were in many ways very similar. Both invest heavily in maintaining their 'brand', in organising coordinated action and campaigns, and in honing key communications capacities - in WWF's case marketing, and in Greenpeace's, news. Each is so strongly organised that its internal world is more important than contact with external organisations, and these are still really the only two functioning 'global' environmental organisations3. Despite the huge differences in modus operandi, tone and style, the national differences exert similar effects on internal politics - for example the financial role of Germany and the Netherlands, the relative conservatism of US politics, the disproportionate influence of the UK in media and its weakness elsewhere.
I subsequently found many multinational companies are rather similar, in so far as internal communications and people's instincts are formed by national cultural differences - something you can also see in the dynamics of inter-government negotiations.
While I was at WWF the organisation held a multi-religion, multi-Prince 50th Anniversary event at Assisi in Italy. My minor role included producing audio-visual materials to show the assembled 'pilgrims' from National Organisations and the great and good, about our work. I commissioned a London media company headed by a film-maker called John Wyatt. John expanded our slide-show budget to create a 35mm film and video, by asking facilities, editors and so on, to companies to contribute their work at less than cost4.
By accident we had discovered a latent enthusiasm in the media industry (it being the late 1980s - a time of expanding 'green' enthusiasms) and decided to try and this spread this fund-raising in kind system to other perhaps even more deserving organisations. So John and I started Media Natura, a charity devoted to organising communication projects for environmental, other NGOs. We thought the name meant nothing but discovered it was 'natural stockings' in Spanish.
In London, Chris Bligh built up Media Natura's network of more than two thousand media suppliers from mainstream advertising agencies to marketing companies, stunt-men, designers and film-makers, and together they donated many millions of pounds worth of resources to hundreds of projects. At that time a huge part of the world's 'media' were based within walking distance of each other, in the media villages of Soho and Fleet Street. We ran hundreds of projects for NGOs drawing on millions of pounds worth of donated media skills and resources.
After I left in 1992, Media Natura grew until the untimely death of its then director John Grey. John was a wonderful communicator. From him, I learnt the basics of visual language. For CEOs he used using the analogy of wine-bottles and their labels - switching the labels (fonts, icons, design styles) said everything, although the text, wine and bottles remained the same.
Media Natura's team dispersed after John's death, leaving a small consultancy and the BEMAs, the British Environment and Media Awards, or 'Green Oscars' as the winners sometimes like to call them. We set up the BEMAs in 1989, both as a PR-device and because at a time, we feared that a media frenzy for 'environment' would bring the 'cause' into disrepute and precipitate a media backlash. My options were a 'media monitoring' system or an award, and I was persuaded by Geoffrey Lean of the Observer that an award would be infinitely more desirable because, as he put it, "journalists will compete for anything, even a green plastic duck". Possibly an example of where a carrot is more effective than a stick: or maybe just of a good bash. At any event the BEMAs live on.
Working with a huge array of very talented people from the media industry taught me a lot. One was that, unlike NGOs, they hardly ever wrote anything down: minuted meetings are largely a creation of government and designed above all for accountability, or the appearance of it. I realised that their approach to project management, along with a host of techniques used in business-to-business communication, could be applied to campaigns.
After four years I was persuaded by Robin Grove-White and Cornelia Durant, Elaine Lawrence and Nick Gallie, to join Peter Melchett at Greenpeace UK. Despite growing success of numbers, money and activity 'something' was wrong - and they wanted to find out what it was and fix it. It soon became apparent that Greenpeace needed to adapt to changing times without losing contact with its values. In fact it also needed to renew itself. Having drifted into managerialist 'professionalism', it was prioritising getting the-facts-right and campaigning by information, and appearing in the media, over principle, non-violent direct action and instinct. Changes made for the best of motives, and the results of the organisation's own successes, were displacing the pioneers and their influence (see Pat Dade's analysis in the essay on value modes in the "Resources" section of this website), with staff more conscious of their external status and less radical types of supporter.
Within a few years we made what seemed like huge changes to the organisation. There was much clucking in the hen coop at the time and I was the most unpopular person in the organisation. Now however they look like minor rearrangements to the institutional tea-leaves and the perfectly obvious. We introduced teams, not issues-based campaign silos, project management, an emphasis on direct communication not just using the media, a solution/problem system rather than just problem-driving campaigning, and challenging (the political abuse of) science. The last perhaps was ahead of its time. It wasn't until Britain had endured BSE, Foot and Mouth, gm crop furores and the Brent Spar that many people 'got it' about science. I think Doug Parr's New Scientist/ Greenpeace debates in 2002 showed we were right to open that as a campaign front, even though it took a decade to get there. (In 2004 Noordhaus and Shellenberger, authors of "Death of Environmentalism" have also argued, from a US perspective, that issue-based campaigning has proved increasingly ineffective - see commentary in the "Resources" section of this website).
Most of all though the booming of Greenpeace of the early 1990s was threatened with accelerated middle age. The protests of the 'roads groups' helped convince myself and Nick Gallie, a communications genius and as much as anyone the inventor of the Greenpeace visual formula, that we had to boost the commitment to action. I remember being struck, while our attention was on the lengthy High Court cases of the THORP campaign in early 1992, by the fact that our main actions coordinator, an accomplished climber, could be seen on tv, occupying his time in a non-Greenpeace campaign. He was taking part in a roof-top occupation of houses at 'Wanstonia' in East London, where hundreds of activists made an non-violent 'Alamo' style last stand against the building of the destructive urban M11 motorway.
Nick came up with the best communications strategy that I have ever seen. The problem was he said that we were prioritising information, and trying to use action just in order to create images. We were doing non-violent direct actions to get onto tv, in order to help empower campaigns that delivered a 'warhead' full of information. Information first, image second, action third. It was perfectly rational and complied to every day social norms.
To paraphrase one colleague at the time: "Greenpeace takes action as the last resort. First we try argument and facts and dialogue, if that fails we expose wrong-doers and if all else fails we take non-violent direct action". This we tried to replace with campaigns led by action5. My thinking was that we ought to design the campaign programme so that we focussed on problems where all else had already failed, and consequently campaigns should be led by action. This was not to say that we simply and only resorted to action, more that non-violent direct action was the pivot, the proactive lynchpin, the strategically significant tactic, and the others were subservient to it.
Nick put it more elegantly: the communication strategy should be:
First, non-violent direct action where morally justified and strategically effective. Not an image-generating protest but a real instrumental action that directly affected the problem by stopping it, or by starting the solution. Second, the image generated by the action. Third, to explain that, the information about the issue, the responsibility, the nature of the problem and solution.
The real renewal of Greenpeace - whether it was temporary or permanent remains to be seen - came about through the Brent Spar and Moruroa (French nuclear testing) campaigns of 1995. Both were nation-shaking (of the UK and France respectively), massively supported by the public, and mould-breaking in their consequences. Both were largely led by a Greenpeace 'old timer', ships captain and lawyer, Ulrich Jurgens. Of the many things that I gleaned from campaigning with Greenpeace, perhaps the most important, was the significance of being able to campaign on principle - guided by your values, like a compass - as well as strategy, which is more like a carefully calculated route map. What might surprise outsiders, and in particular the many critics of Greenpeace, was how much I also learnt from businesses, which have come to form most of the campaign targets, and many of the allies of the organisation.
Of all the campaigns I have been involved with, the one of which I am most proud, was, on the face of it, a failure. It resulted in the extension of the European Habitats Directive to cover the seas out to 200 nm, it played a significant part in starting the Scottish renewables industry, and it replaced 'carbon dioxide emissions' with 'fossil fuels' in the public lexicon of the climate issue. This was the Atlantic Frontier campaign of 1997 and 1998, and the parallel Arctic oil and Australian oil-shale campaigns. I was sad that Greenpeace didn't pursue it after 1999. Such campaigns can require persistence over decades6 if they are to fully succeed.
The 'Atlantic Frontier' refers to the expansion of the oil industry; expansion against the carbon logic7, into an area of great beauty and vulnerable whales and rare corals, with untested technologies in violent waters, ignoring the opportunity to develop alternative wave and wind energies, and in contradiction of the UK Government's avowed commitment to defend the climate.
I still believe the Atlantic Frontier, which encompasses the internationally-disputed islet of Rockall and the majestic island of St Kilda, should be set aside as a World Park. This would also set aside the fossil fuels that lie below it, and set a course away from the carbon age and into a solar powered future. As Richard Sandbrook, former director of the International Institute for Environment and Development has said, such campaigns of transition are now one of the most important roles for NGOs: not so much any longer defining the problem but seeking to create pivots, turning points to actually start implementing changes which politicians and corporate leaders accept should be undertaken.
Since leaving Greenpeace I have worked again with many NGOs as a consultant, including Amnesty International, surely one of the bravest, and have always learnt something from each. Until September 11 2001 and the attack on the twin towers, the defining feature of George W Bush's Presidency was his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Frustrated at the lack of action by established NGOs (I called a lot and was told they were 'monitoring' the situation) some of us started a boycott-bush campaign, soon transformed into Families Against Bush (www.fabclimate.org) . With help from a foundation, we surveyed the attitude of US companies (and others) to the Bush position and provided a red list (don't buy) and a green list (do buy), depending on where they stood. It changed the position of a few companies and eventually inspired the launch of the StopEsso (www.stopesso.com) campaign by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and People and Planet.
My most recent campaigning clients include WWF UK on toxic chemicals, and www.mipiggs.org, focusing on the cinderella potent industrial greenhouse gases. Outside campaigning I work with Beyond Green on housing sustainability, and the Home Office on communications on drugs. I also help my partner Sarah Wise in developing the Fairyland Trust (www.fairylandtrust.org) which is a conservation charity to engage families through having fun in exploring the magic of nature - following Disney's dictum, first, entertain.
1 Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia says: "Vance Packard (May 22, 1914 - December 12, 1996) was an American author. His first book The Hidden Persuaders, about media manipulation of the populace in the 1950s sold a million copies, and was a forerunner of pop sociology."
2 Turner, E.S. 1965. The Shocking History of Advertising. Harmondsworth: Penguin
3 Away from 'the environment' perhaps Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and Save The Children come closest to having comparable networks.
4 not a very good film but that wasn't his fault
5 starting with the year 1994, which happened to feature important development in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - leading to a series of major actions against plutonium-related targets such as Sellafield, Aldermaston and the Trident nuclear submarines
6 For example the early Greenpeace campaigns against nuclear dumping at sea were largely ignored by the media over a period of years
7 The 'carbon logic' is that climate science shows us that in order to keep within ecological limits, only a small fraction of known oil and coal reserves can ever be used, hence we should not add to them by developing new resources, let alone use them all.
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