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How to run an effective local campaign

A 'thermometer' board showing a campaign target has been reached.

Nothing beats people power! If you've got something that needs doing in your local community, who better to make it happen than the people themselves? Campaigning on local issues can be amazingly rewarding: it's a great way to bring people together and foster community spirit. But how effective it is depends on how well-organized you are and how well you direct the mass of enthusiasm you manage to generate at a well-defined target. Here are some top tips for making sure your campaign hits the spot!

Photo: Campaigns are all about building momentum to achieve a specific objective. Fundraising campaigns can be energized using visual tools like a thermometer, displayed prominently in the local community and gradually colored in as you build to your target. Photo by Gary Nichols courtesy of US Navy.

1. Define clear objectives

If you don't know what you're trying to achieve, you can't possibly achieve it! The more clearly you define your objectives, the easier they'll be to achieve. Let's say you're a group of parents, appalled by the number of people who've been run over crossing the street where you live, and you want to address the issue before someone gets killed. As an objective, that's too vaguely defined. Why not go for something like trying to get your local authority to install a crossing, introduce a lower speed limit, "traffic calm" your street, or take some other specific measure? But balance the need to be clear and specific with the need to be flexible: don't insist on one very specific solution to a problem if other options may be available.

2. Find out who can make it happen

Let's keep the road crossing as our example and assume that getting it built is your objective. Your first step is to find out who has the power to make that happen and how. Approach your local authority and ask them. Ask the police. Find out who has the responsibility and what would need to happen for a new crossing to be created. Are there set times of year when road improvements like that are considered? How are they funded and what else has to compete in the same budget? Understand the process by which things happen and you're halfway to making them happen. Likewise, if you're campaigning against something (maybe a new power plant in your neighborhood or a landfill site you really don't want), you need to understand the decision making process completely. How will permission for the development be granted? Who makes the decision and how? How can you influence the people who will make the decision?

3. Figure out the timescale

Campaigning for a new road crossing doesn't have to happen to any particular timetable—it's just one of those things that needs to happen as soon as possible. Fighting a development is different: it's almost certainly progressing on a careful timetable that you need to understand and use to your advantage. The further a development proceeds and the more decisions are taken, the harder it is to stop. Understanding the timescale and figure out what you need to do and by when.

4. Arm yourself with information

When it comes to campaigning, there's no doubt whatsoever that information is power. You need to understand your issue better than anyone else. Do your job properly and you'll rapidly find you are the world expert on road crossings, local neighborhood power plants, or whatever it might be! Read all relevant reports, committee meetings, and anything else you can find. If you're campaigning against a development proposal, research all the relevant laws and planning policies and find out if any of them are going to be violated.

Having gone through the information, extract the specific arguments that support your case—but don't cherry-pick: don't just ignore arguments that contradict your point of view. You may well find lots of arguments against your case—and you need to try to understand those as objectively as you can. For example, you may find that the road accident rate in your neighborhood is twice what it is in other neighborhoods, which is a powerful argument in your favor. But you might also find some research showing that speed-limit signs are widely ignored and make little difference to casualties. Understanding the arguments against your plan will help you come up with a more powerful and convincing case. In this example, the research seems to be saying that you have a good case for addressing the problem of casualties but a speed limit sign might not be the most effective solution. What other options are there? Always be prepared to revisit your objectives when you get new and better information.

5. Present your information persuasively

Campaigning means winning people round to your way of thinking. You can do that through facts and emotions, but you need to be clear about the difference between them and use them as a two-pronged attack. Saying things like "something must be done" isn't really going to get you anywhere. Presenting facts or statistics about road accidents could persuade people in a coldly rational way. Getting mothers who've lost children to road accidents to hold up banners with "5 people killed here in the last four years" is even more effective, combining powerful facts with powerful, sincere emotion.

6. The power of alternatives

When you find yourself campaigning against something, it's almost invariably more effective to have something else to offer as an alternative. There might be a plan to close your village school on the grounds that it's old and too decrepit to maintain, but that would mean lots of children traveling several miles to school each day. The most effective way to fight a plan like this would be to come up with an alternative everyone can agree on. Why can't a brand new school be built in the same place or very nearby?

Make sure any alternative you suggest meets broadly the same objectives as the one on the table. One classic mistake environmentalists make is to try to argue against very specific local plans (a new road through a town or a new waste incinerator, perhaps) with very general arguments for a better planet. It's true that "We need people to buy more local produce so there are fewer trucks on the roads" and that "Food makers need to use less packaging so there's less trash"—but neither of those is an effective, immediate alternative to the specific threat of a new road or landfill.

7. Form a group

Local campaigns can be hard work and a group of campaigners is generally more effective than one person. You can share out the workload and enthuse one another when the going gets tough. You don't necessarily have to be a formally constituted group with a chairperson, secretary, and so on; you might find it easier to rotate these roles. However, it's good to have one individual as your nominated press spokesperson and make sure all the local media people know who that is. Meet regularly: weekly or fortnightly is generally best for an active campaign. Keep meeting even if things are going slowly or times are tough: campaign meetings are an act of faith!

One danger of working in a group is that you listen only to your own arguments and repeatedly confirm your own prejudices. You may find campaign meetings are very enthusiastic affairs but involve little more than "believers" repeating arguments among themselves—people who need no convincing! Campaigning is not about shutting yourself away and preaching to the converted; make sure you get out and speak to plenty of other people in your community, especially ones who don't share your views. Get onto the streets, talk to passers by, or go from door to door. Don't be seduced by the sound of your own voice; find out what other people think too.

8. Raise general awareness

Once you've established your objectives, researched your issue, and arrived at an alternative plan (if appropriate), you can start winning over more people to your cause. Leaflets, websites, stalls in the street, door-to-door visits, and public meetings are all good things for general-awareness raising. Getting your local paper, radio, or TV station involved is a good idea too; there's nothing they like more than championing popular community campaigns. Keep a careful note of any keen supporters and invite them to help you out by joining your campaign group.

9. Build support systematically

There's a huge difference between raising awareness of an issue and building support in a way that will actually influence a decision. You can hold dozens of public meetings and give out thousands of leaflets, but what you really need is for motivated members of the community to be directing their concern at the people who will decide your issue. Back to our example of the road crossing. You could print up hundreds (or thousands) of postcards and go door-to-door with them, getting people to sign them on the spot and taking them away with you signed and ready to deliver. (Don't leave things with people to think over and forget; always sign them up on the spot.) If your elected representatives suddenly receive 5000 cards demanding a road crossing, they're going to take far more notice than if they hear vague mutterings in the local paper. You could keep a list of your supporters' names and addresses on a computer and keep sending them newsletters, appeals for funds, or requests for other help (be mindful of any data-protection laws or similar issues). Systematically build your momentum.

10. Understand the opposition

Whatever you want, there's almost invariably someone else who wants the opposite. Ideally, you need to win over opponents to your way of thinking, which is best done by presenting reasoned arguments and credible alternatives. But you won't always achieve this. If you're fighting well-funded developers with huge amounts of money at stake, it's a very different game from challenging the status-quo—which is all you're really taking on when you try to get a new road crossing constructed.

Try to empathize with the people whose minds you're trying to change and remember that they're not all necessarily "opponents": they're just people who see things from another point of view. If you can understand where they're coming from, maybe you can win them around in the longer term. If your campaign is social or environmental, winning over opponents may be more important in the long term than achieving your immediate, short-term objective. For example, if you're trying to get people to buy more fair-trade produce by running a market stall, it's just as important for people to think about and understand issues of unfair trade, poverty, and social justice as to spend an extra few cents on the coffee they're buying today. And saving the planet is something we all have to do together; it's not something a handful of activists can do by themselves. People who walk past and brusquely say "Not interested!" are not opponents, as such; you just haven't understood them or reached out to them the right way. Today's opponents are tomorrow's supporters. Don't polarize opinion or alienate people unless it's unavoidable.

How to campaign with Facebook and Twitter

When I first started campaigning on environmental issues, back in the 1980s, no-one had heard of the Internet; if you campaigned, you did it with traditional techniques such as public meetings, street stalls, posters, leaflets, and doorstepping. During the 1990s, the rapid growth of the World Wide Web changed all that. You can now run a campaign entirely online, from a laptop on your kitchen table, without ever meeting a single soul. When Twitter appeared in 2006, it revolutionized online campaigning: now you don't even have to go to the bother of setting up a website or maintaining a list of supporters; Twitter does all that for you. There's never been an easier way to whip up public opinion than with a few well-aimed tweets. On one level, online campaigning is a really good thing: you can (almost) instantly reach hundreds, thousands, or millions of people and win them over to your cause. But on another level, there are dangerous pitfalls.

Screenshot of the Save Stonehenge campaign website.

The first is a problem with any kind of campaigning: there's a temptation to believe your own rhetoric, assume everyone thinks the same way you do, and convince yourself your campaign is having more impact than it really is. Sitting at your computer, sealed in your online bubble, detached from the real world of real concerns, you meet fewer opponents and encounter fewer contradictory views and the danger is far greater. You might think you're advancing your cause while you sit at your computer debating with "imaginary people" who lurk on message boards, but how many "real people" are you failing to reach at the same time?

The second problem is in assuming that online activism makes a real difference to the problems you're trying to address. Countless millions of people sign online petitions, but the sheer ease of doing so devalues them; they count for little and change less than, for example, a determined march of a few thousand angry citizens past the parliament of their capital city. Marching for hours (and possibly risking arrest or a police baton) counts for much more than a couple of mouse clicks that take fifteen seconds. We live in a real world, not a virtual one, and it takes real commitment, determination, and sacrifice to change things for the better. An online campaign on Facebook or Twitter reveals exactly how much—or little—support you have. If you're trying to persuade a local representative who has a constituency of 200,000 people and you can muster only 50 followers on Twitter, how much effect do you think that will have? But organize a sit-in with 50 people or get 50 people to shout and wave banners outside parliament, and you'll have a very different impact.

Online campaigning works best when it goes hand-in-hand with traditional campaigning techniques. So, for example, use Twitter or Facebook to organize a march or protest; use email to circulate the minutes of a meeting; use Flickr to post photos of your demonstration outside county hall for people who couldn't make it; use YouTube to make candid videos of politicians saying silly things that will come back to bite them. But don't assume you can do everything online: don't think for one moment that tweeting your political representative is anything like as effective as confronting them on their own doorstep at 8am, with a TV news crew standing behind you, and shouting in their face about their failure to build a safe road crossing where children have died.

So go online, and campaign online. But remember that online campaigning is only one of the many tools at your disposal. If you rely solely on online campaigning, you're missing a trick—and you may well fail.

Artwork: The Save Stonehenge! campaign used a variety online techniques, including a campaign website and email list, to stop a highway being built through the internationally famous Stonehenge World Heritage Site in England.

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