What happens when you handover a campaign postcard?

A while ago, one of my colleagues got to speak to a former ministerial Special Advisor (SPAD) to find out what really happens to all those campaign postcards we send to a government department.

My experience from running the Campaign Totals project over the last few years indicates that every department does things slightly differently, but here are five useful reflections from that conversation;

1. All correspondence goes to the correspondence unit. There’s no mechanism to make anyone outside the unit aware of it. However SPADs and Ministers can enquire about what the public’s writing in about, and SPADs in particular are likely to make sure they do as a good way to keep in touch.

2. Ministers will sign and read replies to letters or emails from MPs, and usually from directors of NGOs (sometimes from other senior staff) and will also read the incoming correspondence at the same time. That’s the only correspondence they’ll usually see.

3. The department may choose to post a reply to a public campaign on its website, usually if a SPAD says they should. That’s a good way to see what they think is worth taking notice of.

4. It works well for an NGO CEO to write to a minister to say how many campaign messages they’ve received and say what they’re asking the minister to do.

5. Hand-ins are a very good way to get a minister’s attention, if something is personally handed over to them. They’re more likely to agree if they think the photo will get good media coverage, and if there’s a celebrity involved, or someone who is seen as a celebrity by a particular audience. A hand-in with no minister present won’t come to a minister’s attention (unless you got media coverage for it).

What other insights do readers of the blog have about how to ensure your campaign postcards get noticed after a handover? 

Why reporting back matters….

A couple of timely reminders about why feeding back on the success (or otherwise) of our campaigns is so important.

Firstly, the findings of a substantive piece of research on ‘Understanding public attitudes to aid and development’ from the thinktanks ODI and IPPR.

As the Campaigns Totals work that I’ve carried out over the last few years shows, the development sector in the UK has some of the most active campaigning departments generated hundreds of thousands of actions every year. In light of that, the findings from a number of focus groups across the country on what people thought about development and aid are important.

While the report is reflecting on all the communications that have come from the sector of which campaigning is only part, the researchers found a new trend that highlights the importance of sharing stories of success, including in our campaigning is as important in helping to demonstrate that we are making a difference, even if the direct causality is hard to show.

But something polling and surveys have not highlighted to date is the extent to which some of the communications and fundraising images NGOs and governments use may have contributed to public scepticism – the repeated use of images that show people living in desperate need has created an impression that very little has changed over the past few decades.

The researchers goes onto suggest that;

The dissatisfaction expressed with the more simple narratives often communicated today – and the relatively undeveloped understanding they have fostered – should provide food for thought for policymakers and those engaged in advocacy on these issues

While the challenges from the report need to be taken on by more than just those involved in advocacy campaigning within the development sector, I think it presents a clear challenge for any sector of the danger of repeatedly asking people to take action without actively feeding back on the impact that their actions have had can have.

Secondly, was anoter great email from the team at SumOfUs.org.

Sadly I can’t find a copy of the email on the web anywhere, but the message which was entitled ‘OFFICIAL REPORT-BACK: April-June‘ was an excellent example, taking me through the 6 or so key campaigns that SumOfUs.org had been behind over the last few months and summarising the impact that the movement has had.

It was an impressive and empowering read, honest as to the reasons why some of the campaigns hadn’t succeeded but also clear about the difference action had made. I’ve pasted the first few paragraphs below;

Our tiny team (just 5 people!) can’t take on these corporations on our own. But when the whole SumOfUs.org community — over 680,000 conscientious consumers around the world — comes together, corporations sit up and take notice, and magical things can happen.

All told, we’ve taken an astounding 2,655,793 actions since our inception just six months ago. And lately we’ve won some big campaigns — like driving out more than half of all corporate funding for the climate-denying Heartland Institute.

So, read on below and see more of what we’ve accomplished together!

It’s a great example of how to do feedback well, and given the findings of the IPPR/ODI report a timely reminder of the importance of doing it.

Looking beyond the usual corporate suspects

I was struck by this comment in a great post by David Ritter on campaigning trends that corporates need to be ready to respond to in the coming year;

NGOs are increasingly looking beyond the usual corporate suspects for campaign targets.

Ritter goes on to cite the example of ‘the global management consultancy McKinsey has been targeted by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation for its ‘bad influence’ on deforestation. In McKinsey’s case – and to be brutally frank – for a global management consultancy that makes its living telling other people what to do, they’ve made a real mess out of how they have responded to being a campaign target.

Another great example of this approach, has been the campaigning that Sum Of Us have been doing toward the corporates that support the work of the Heartland Institute, a US think tank that has spent millions promoting climate scepticism.

The online movement has  focused on those corporates that fund the foundation and seen a number respond as a result putting real pressure on the ongoing funding of the Institute. It’s a great campaign, using an innovative approach which exposing the large sums that corporates spend rather than simply opposing the activities of the Institute, which would likely be futile.

I think campaigners could learn from both examples. What other examples of  campaigning beyond the usual corporate suspects have impressed you?

Campaign Totals 2012

On Wednesday, I’ll be sharing the first results this years campaigns totals survey.  Like last year I’ve been using Freedom of Information to find out how many campaign actions different government departments receive each year.

Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WhitehallI was amazed by the response that I got last year, with the results covered in Third Sector magazine and numerous campaigners getting in touch to say how helpful they’d found the information in their own internal benchmarking. I hope that this year results will prove helpful for campaigner from across the UK.

As in 2011, this year I’ve requested the information from all Whitehall departments covering the period 1st May 2011 to 1st May 2012. I’ve asked each department to provide the following;

  • The total number of campaign letters, postcards and emails that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign you received from 1st May 2011 to 1st May 2012.
  • The breakdown of these numbers by delivery method (letter, postcard and email).
  • A breakdown by topic and/or organisation(s) where you received more than 500 items of correspondence (through any delivery method) that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign in the period defined above.

At the end of the process, when I’ve got results from the majority of the 20+ government departments I’ve approached I should be in a position to share a total number of actions generated to Whitehall in the last 12 months and the split between e-actions and offline actions.

This year I’m also going to be able to try to define a ‘par’ score for each government department – based on the information over the last 2 years I want to find out what like in golf, the number of actions that a department my expect to receive and therefore which campaigns are able to break through this to show real traction.

I’m also going to be interested to see what impact online campaign platforms have had in the campaign environment. Last year Avaaz showed up in the top 15, but 38 Degrees didn’t, I wonder if the focus on the NHS Bill has changed this, and what impact has the launch of change.org in the UK has had on the totals.

It’ll also be fascinating if the launch of the No10 petition site has had an impact on the number of actions. Is it a site that’s bringing more organisations and individuals into taking campaigning action, or is it displacing actions from more traditional methods. My sense is that most campaigning organisations haven’t really embraced this tool, so perhaps this has increased the overall total.

When newspapers start to campaign – The Times Cities for Cycling

The email from my father this weekend started like this;

Thomas, Can I bring your attention to The Times Cities for Cycling Campaign which is trying to make a real push to improve the cyclists lot and safety particularly in our cities but not exclusively. There are already some top people signed up to it (most UK cycling Olympic team members, Boris J and Ken L, Gabbi Logan, Jon Snow, James Cracknell)…..

It was in response to the biggest public policy campaign to launch last week didn’t come from an NGO or a pressure group but The Times newspaper, which launched the campaign on Thursday motivated by a tragic cycle accident that left one of its young reporters in a coma last year.

As a response, the papers campaign is calling on the adoption of an 8-point cycle safety plan in cities across the country. As I write the paper is suggesting that 17,000 people have supported the campaign, and over 600 have emailed there MP.

Now The Times isn’t the first newspaper to launch a campaign to change public policy, indeed seeing it reminded me of a conversation that I once had with a former Government PR Advisor who suggested that many of the campaigns that are launched are worked out with a certain level of collusion with the government beforehand, but it’s a good case study to look at.

To see what the newspaper has done well in the first few days of its campaign, and what it could improve on, but also the massive potential opportunities for the right campaigning partner to come alongside a newspaper on.

So what are they doing well?

They give profile to a previously overlooked issue – Now this is obvious, if you’ve got a daily readership of 400,000 people, plus excellent connections with credible spokespeople (see the use of many of our Olympic cycling medalists) it’s easy to give a huge amount of profile to the issue that has perhaps previously been overlooked, and that’s certainly true with the editorial coverage of this campaign. The website Road.cc has a nice breakdown of everything they’ve covered and the celebrities they’ve engaged.

Direct access to decision makers – We shouldn’t underestimate just how good this access is. Read any of the diaries that came out from ministers in the previous Labour Government and you soon get a sense that they were in weekly (and perhaps daily) touch with the editors of the main newspapers. Add to that the fact that some of the advisors around key Ministers previously coming from the ‘fourth estate’ you can be sure that regular lobbying around some of the campaigns demands. I’m sure we’ll see articles in support of the campaign from leading political figures in the next few days.

They accelerate the policy change cycle – Perhaps because of the demands of a daily paper, or as a result of the discussions that happen before a campaign is launched, previous newspaper campaigns have been able to move from launching the campaign to declaring victory within days rather than, giving a natural platform to announce the campaign success. I can’t see the Times campaign as being any different.

In this campaign they’ve moved an issue that rapidly up the agenda of decision makers, and I’m sure across the country this weekend there are elected Mayors and Council Leaders trying to work what they can do to implement these suggestions. It’ll be interesting to see when The Times announces its first campaign victories, my guess it’ll be within days rather than the months it can often take for traditional NGO campaigns.

Engage new audience – Exhibit A for this would be my father, he’s a loyal Times reader and a regular cyclist, but he’s not a natural activist but so I can only guess that because the issue has come from a trusted source for him (his newspaper) its been able to engage him, and no doubt others in a way that other campaigning organisations can’t.

But what aren’t they so good at?

Taking supporters on a journey – Go to the website and the campaign offers a menu of three actions you can take to immediately support the campaign – Pledge Support, Spread the Word and Write to Your MP – but I’m not sure what will happen next to my Dad and the 17,000 others who’ve shown their support.

Will they hear more, or be encouraged to do more, or is their primary role to help provide the headline number? This is a space where a charity/campaigning partner working with the newspaper could play an important role, providing those readers who want to get involved in the campaign with tools and opportunities to do more.

Generating actions – I can’t decide if I should be impressed by 17,000 actions or a little underwhelmed. It’s a decent number but given the amount of coverage, the readership of the newspaper and the heavy promotion that it’s got on twitter, where #cyclesafe has been trending for much of the week in the UK, it puts it somewhere mid-table when it comes to the number of actions that movements like 38 Degrees or organisations like Friends of the Earth can generate. Perhaps its simply shows the challenge of converting coverage into campaign actions.

Seeing the issue to resolution – It’s too early to tell if this will be the case with the Times campaign, but given this isn’t the main business of a newspaper, it’ll be interesting to watch if the paper continues to monitor any commitments that are made to ensure they’re followed through on as opposed to simply being announced in response to the campaign.

Do you agree? Should we be impressed by 17,000 actions? Does working with a newspaper provide a great opportunity for a campaigning organisation?