Campaigning for the ‘long haul’

We’re told that patience is a virtue, but if we’re honest with ourselves it’s not one that’s always found in abundance within the campaigning world. As campaigners we’re paid to be impatient people, we want things to change now.

But a recent conversation with a colleague who’d been involved in the start of the Australian anti-smoking campaign over 20 years ago reminded me that some times our campaigns are going to take years, even decades to win rather than the weeks we’d like it to!

My colleague was celebrating because just the week before the conversation the Australian government had announced another victory for the campaign, that packets of cigarettes would no longer be able to be sold with any branding on them, a step that advocates on the issue believed would help to reduce sales of cigarettes to minor, another important step in the campaign to reduce the public health impacts of cigarette smoking.

It was a good challenge, as it raised questions for me about how we plan our campaigns for the long-haul. Here are a few thoughts about what we can do, if we subscribe to the belief that sometimes change will be a ‘long time coming’!

1 – Be clear about the steps on the journey to success – I often come across campaigns that are quick to announce their ultimate goal, but are less clear about the journey that they’re going to need to go on to get to it. How much time in our planning do we map out the potential steps that we might need to take on that journey, the policy wins, the changed attitudes or the key individuals that we need to bring on board to be successful. These interim goals are as important to identify as the final goal.

When we do this do we need to do more to communicate our anticipated story to our supporters and donors to give them a sense that we’re on the right trajectory as opposed to demotivating them when the final goal doesn’t feel likes it coming around as quickly as we’d like?

2 – Consider the ‘What If’s’ - Do we spend too much time thinking about a simple and clean liner path to success in our campaigning. We assume that we’ll be successful every step of the way along, but sometimes that doesn’t happen, we find that a target is immovable, or the argument that we’re using isn’t getting the traction that it needs, but how often in our planning do we ask ‘what if’ and come up with multiple options towards eventual victory, anticipating when we might need to shift our plans. The excellent paper ‘The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy‘ has lots of more on the importance of this approach in successful campaigns.

3 – Communicating our ‘signs of transformation’ – We often have stories to share that help to prove that we’re heading in the right direction. Where I work we’re encouraged to capture and communicate our ‘signs of transformations’ to staff and support, these are the tip bits that we pick up in conversation with policy makers, politicians or others that help to justify our decisions. In the long battles for success capturing and celebrating the small victories become important both to those working on the campaign but also those supporting it.

4 – Holding something back – Thinking back to the experience of Make Poverty History, and perhaps to a lesser extent the climate campaigning ahead of Copenhagen, one of the biggest challenges that I observed was that after the main moment their were few people around to keep the campaign going.

During Make Poverty History everyone became so fixated on the G8 meeting in July that their were few people around to keep the campaign going for the second six months of 2005. I’m increasingly convinced that campaigns need to be developing a ‘bench’ of experienced campaigners who can come in to keep the momentum going after these key moments. For those leading campaigns that are going to take time to ‘win’ we need to consider what we have in reserve.

What lessons have you learn’t about campaigning for the ‘long haul’?

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One Response

  1. As the Australian anti-tobacco campaigner referred to by Tom, I wholly endorse this view of the value of taking a long-term approach.

    In addition to the lessons learned that Tom outlines, I would add:

    We need to celebrate the people who keep a campaign going, not just the ones who kick it off. There’s a natural, and appropriate, tendency to honour the brave souls who are prepared to identify a problem, formulate a response, and go out on a limb to call for change. But often those people (perhaps by their nature) move on to other causes and exciting, new challenges. We should be grateful to those who stay for the long haul, and others who join in later, and play a crucial role in ensuring that we meet the ultimate goal.

    It’s good to recycle. More than 20 years ago in Sydney we commissioned an opinion poll and found that an overwhelming majority of smokers – not just non-smokers – were in favour of smoke-free restaurants. Yes, they smoked, but it didn’t mean that they wanted to eat their dinner in a haze of other peoples’ smoke. We got great media coverage from that – it sparked good discussions, and helped us break down the idea that smokers and non-smokers will naturally line up on different sides of the passive smoking argument. Repeating that same study in different cities around the world meant that local campaigners got similar discussions going. I bet that if we did the same survey now in a city where smoking is rife we could get a similar response. Just because we know something has been done before doesn’t mean our target audience does. We don’t always have to invent new campaigning tools and messages: instead, let’s adapt and build on stuff that’s worked before.

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