What are the OccupyLondon protests teaching us?

Now in its fourth week, the OccupyLondon protests outside of St Paul’s Cathedral have been able to keep their cause in the media for such a sustained period of time, something many other campaigns fail to do.

While this was certainly helped by the mess that the Church of England made over it decision to close the Cathedral in the first week of the protest, I’m sure that the name recognition of the protest across the UK will be high.

Combine that with the rise of Occupy movements across the world, I’m in Washington DC this week and passed an OccupyDC in the city today, I think it’s legitimate to say that we’re seeing the birthing of a new campaigning movement, and with its emergence, a challenge to some of the assumptions about campaign structures that have guided more traditional organisations.

1 – Campaigns Needs Leaders

The OccupyLondon protests have spokesman but not leaders; they’ve adopted a non-hierarchical which means that decisions are made by a General Assembly which gathers each and every day to reach agreement by consensus. So far, even the media haven’t been able to bestow the title of ‘leader’ upon an individual associated with the protest.

The approach they’re taking of course isn’t an entirely new one, it’s been used by other campaigning movements, like Climate Camp, in recent years but it brings into focus one of the key questions I think that campaigns are facing at the moment, do campaigns need leaders?

Some would argue that a strong central leader or leaders is essential to a campaign’s success, for example Ann Pettifor who lead the Jubilee Debt Campaign writes in Cutting the Diamond ‘Contrary to the views of many in not-for-profit organisations, I believe that sound leadership is fundamental to successful public advocacy

Going on to contrast the Jubilee 2000 campaign which had a tight hierarchical leadership structure with a single clear message, to that of the climate change movement, which is made up of ‘thousands of small and large well-meaning organisations stumbled leaderless, disunited, and without a clear achievable ‘ask’ into the United Nations Copenhagen process’.

At the moment OccupyLondon are demonstrating that it’s possible to take a different approach and run a high-profile campaign. If this public profile can be sustained without a smaller group of identifiable leaders coming to the public conscience it could be seen as another blow for those who hold the position that campaigns can only succeed with a strong leader (or leaders) at their heart.

2 – Campaigns Need Clear and Concise Asks

One of the things I found striking from the first few days of the protest, was the lack of an apparent clear set of campaign asks coming out from the protesters, indeed a number of media outlets had to resort to pieces speculating on ‘what do the campaigners want’.

After a couple of days this statement was released from the General Assembly, but it still lacks the ‘elevator pitch’ that many campaigns rest upon, but is this needed?

This was a theme that Adrian Lovett, Director of ONE in Europe picked up upon in an excellent debate on The World Tonight last month, when he suggested that ‘the two things that a campaign needs is that its got to describe the destination that it want to get to, the world the campaigns want to create in as vivid as way as possible, but if that’s hard to get to some of the steps along the way’. For me, it doesn’t feel as the OccupyLondon movement has that at present, and I wonder if that’s hindering the movement growing.

I’m struck for example that movements like 38 Degrees don’t appear to have mobilised their supporters behind it, despite many of the aims of the movement being in keeping with its ‘progressive agenda’. Is this because they’re not able to reduce the demands of the movement to a concise and communicable few lines that will translate well into an email?

What do you think? Do you agree that campaigns need leaders? Does OccupyLondon need a clear ask to succeed?

UpdateThird Sector has an article about how charities could learn from the OccupyLondon communication approach.

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