Change the world: A twelve-step programme

You've seen the injustice. You're seething. But can you channel your anger into action? Of course you can, says the former Greenpeace activist Chris Rose


The planet needs campaigns. Conventional politics of left and right have long proved incapable of dealing with environmental problems. With some notable exceptions, governments acknowledge them, but fail to act effectively.

The planet needs campaigns. Conventional politics of left and right have long proved incapable of dealing with environmental problems. With some notable exceptions, governments acknowledge them, but fail to act effectively.

"Environment" usually receives scant attention in British elections. Tony Blair has said that climate change is the greatest threat facing the world - but it's a long-term threat. It's seen as an issue for government, not an issue that divides voters and swings elections, so it's not on the agenda. Business is there to make money. At present, campaigns are essential if business, politics and individual choices are to save the environment rather than destroy it.

Political campaigning is simpler than environmental campaigns because the means of winning are fixed. Like football, there's a goal, a pitch and rules. Environmental campaigns are like a game in which rules are a matter of opinion; where you have to attract and hold support and build the team by persuasion; and in which people join, or leave, as they like. Campaigns are conversations with society, wars of persuasion, and a politics of the people, for the public good, by the people.

Faced with our near-suicidal devastation of the environment - from filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases to seasoning our food chain with toxic chemicals - a campaign can be ordinary individuals' only chance to join together and make a real difference.

Yet campaigns usually fail. A few change outcomes, more achieve publicity but little else, and most splutter out quietly or stagger on ineffectively. There is no single right answer, any more than there's a secret formula for success in science or business. Even so, there are some tricks of the trade that can help you succeed, locally or globally. Here are 12 ideas.

1 Reality check

Do you really need to campaign? It can be fun, but it's often hard, dull, frustrating and unsuccessful. At best, it's like Charlie Watts' description of 20 years with The Rolling Stones - one year of playing music and 19 years of hanging about.

Campaigning is appropriate only when all else has failed. People must be persuaded to take an unusual interest in a move that would not normally happen. It means setting up and sustaining processes that are not "business as usual". If politics is "the art of the possible", campaigning is the art of the impossible. Done right, it inspires: unstructured or poorly focused campaigns are hot-air balloons kept aloft by burning idealism and goodwill. If in doubt, don't.

2 It's motivation, stupid...

... not education. Campaigning lowers the barriers to action and increases the incentives to act until: the rabbit pops down the hole; the dog jumps through the hoop; the President signs the decree; the commuter takes the train.

Education, while good in itself, is a broadening exercise. It uses examples to reveal layers of complexity, leading to lower certainty but higher understanding. Don't use it to campaign.

Campaigning maximises motivation of an audience, not its knowledge. Use education to campaign, and you'll end up exploring your issue but not changing it.

If campaigns have an "educational" effect, it's through doing, not being given information. Information is not power until it leads to effective mobilisation. If it were, the world would be run by librarians.

3 Analyse the forces at play

You know what needs to change (that's the easy bit). Ask: "Why hasn't it happened already?" Map the forces for and against what you want to happen: people involved, organisations, institutions. Work out exactly what the mechanisms are for the decisions you want to change. Identify allies and opponents. Work out your target audience for each step to your objective. Look at it from their point of view.

How will you now change the balance of forces to overcome the obstacle? If you don't know, how can you specify an objective? The obvious point of conflict - in Woody Allen's words, where adversaries "lock antlers in the living room" - will attract the media but may not be the best place to focus. Think where the extra input you can add will make the biggest impact.

4 Make it simple

Campaigns are needed if an urgent problem has to be made public to be resolved. Non-urgent problems are unlikely to justify campaigns. Motivation needs simplicity in message and purpose. Communicate one thing at a time. Use an unambiguous "call to action" that needs no explanation.

Consider the "fire" notices in hotel rooms. If you smell smoke, you expect to find instructions giving only the essential information. It fits the situation and asks for action in the right order. You don't want guests trying to phone the fire brigade - they just should get out. Yet many "campaigns" try to be explanations. They should produce a "fire notice" more like this...

5 Get the right components in the right order

A fire sign's sequence is: awareness; alignment; engagement; action. This says: "Fire" (the issue); "We are all in danger" (alignment); "Go this way" (engagement); "We are leaving" (action). As a conversation, it's simple and short. It helps that we all know what a fire is. A real campaign is likely to be far longer and slower, but the basic sequence is the same.

A more typical campaign plan might look something like this, introducing both the problem, the "enemy" (the responsible agent of the problem), and the solution. The campaign involves a deliberate series of revelations to take the "audience" from ignorance, through interest and concern (components of awareness), to anger and engagement (motivation), and finally into a state of satisfaction or reward.

If that happens, the campaign's participants and supporters will be ready for more. On their own, these components do not make sense: they'll get a "so what?" response. Communicate them all at once and there's no involvement in the "story" of the campaign. A campaign has to be like a book or drama - the outcome must be important but unknown.

6 Start from where your audience is

An old dictum of marketing. A salesman tries to get you to buy something by adding value - extra features, extra benefits. A marketer finds out what you want, what you already do and think, and creates a product to fit you.

Campaigns involve marketing motivation. Do your research. Remember the chickens. An aid agency ran a project in Africa. It wanted to spread the idea. It made a film of the scheme, and a mobile cinema toured target villages. Viewers remembered "the chickens", a survey found. Yet chickens had nothing to do with the project. One shot had shown a Land-Rover speeding past a hut and chickens flying up. Chickens were a sign of wealth, so this was by far the most interesting bit of the film.

7 Make a critical path

All issues are complex, but your campaign must not be. The politics of your town or street are as byzantine as the UN's, but that's no excuse for communicating complexity. Complexity demotivates. It makes people feel confused, and if they feel confused, they will think you are confused and not worth listening to.

In German, there is an expression, "the red thread" - the important line running through a complex picture, place or process. Your campaign has to be like a red thread. It cannot be the "whole picture". Do not try to communicate the issue, communicate your campaign - what you think, the problem as you see it, your solution, the opportunity - and only that.

8 Campaign against the unacceptable

Most campaigns need to attract broad support. To do that, narrow the focus. It is better to campaign against a small part of a big problem unacceptable to 99 per cent of people than a large part of the problem unacceptable to only 1 per cent.

Look at your issue. It will be full of shades of grey, like an aerial photograph of a city. Zoom in on your chosen areas. Blow it up until there is just black and white - that is what to communicate. Go to that point to make your case.

An example: in the 1980s, Friends of the Earth's campaign to protect habitats from agricultural intensification could not get past the Archers image of farming. We paused to run a campaign to ban straw-burning - even farmers' wives were against that. The defences were breached.

9 Make events happen

"Events, my dear boy, events," said Harold Macmillan when, as prime minister of this country, he was asked what he was most worried about when running the government.

Don't argue, do. Events are the stuff of all kinds of politics - formal politics, business politics, personal politics or even the politics of the dung heap.

News is not about ideas or concepts - it is about things that happen. Ask yourself every day: what is this campaign doing? What's the verb? Is it starting something, publishing, blocking, rescuing, occupying, marching, lobbying, painting... What exactly are you doing?

10 Say what you mean

Directly or indirectly, a campaign consists of persuading others not just that you are right, but that you are so right that they must take some form of action.

Every day we are exposed to thousands of messages. Almost all are ignored. Very few things "stick". Anything that makes a message hard to understand makes it less likely to stick.

The simplest thing you can do to help your message get across is to be direct and straightforward. Forget being "clever". When all else fails (as it probably will), say what you mean. Try telling a member of your family, and when they "get it", use their way of saying it.

The campaign name is a case in point. One of the most successful anti-motorway campaigns in the UK was called Stop The Box, a 1970s effort to prevent the construction of the inner London "motorway box". It succeeded.

11 Find the conflict in events

This is often misunderstood. Conflict is inherent to campaigns. Without a conflict of interest, a campaign would not be needed.

That is not to promote conflict, confrontation or aggression. Greenpeace, for example, is committed to non-violent means in order to confront things that it believes are morally and technically wrong.

News usually focuses on conflict. Most significant changes are fiercely opposed. "No opposition" will often translate into "not much news".

12 Make the news

Conflict signals outcomes someone cares about. To launch the London Wildlife Trust, we wanted to plant wild primroses on Primrose Hill. Not news - until the Royal Parks refused permission. Officials even asked: "How tall is it?" (apparently thinking it was a tree). We made the front page of The Observer.

Here was a story the press could handle: bureaucracy vs the little people. There was a conflict and "human interest" - a formula the paper recognised. News is often a new twist on an old story. Your campaign will be in conflict with someone, somewhere. It could be your most newsworthy opportunity.

How To Win Campaigns, by Chris Rose (Earthscan, £15.29). See and

Chris Rose, now an independent consultant, has worked on campaigns for many green groups, including the British Association of Nature Conservationists, the London Wildlife Trust, Wildlife Link, Friends of the Earth, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Media Natura and, latterly and most notably, Greenpeace UK, where he was deputy director.

In the 1990s, Rose was called in to refocus Greenpeace after some members thought it had strayed too far from its roots in non-violent direct action. Rose helped to change its structure so that rapid responses and "actions" (occupying a ship, scaling Big Ben) generated dramatic pictures. He also stressed that the group should offer environmental solutions.

Rose, a keen birdwatcher, lives in north Norfolk with his partner Sarah Wise (who runs a green charity for children, the Fairyland Trust) and their two children.

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