Campaigns that work: My lessons from The Peoples’ Vote & #walkouton77

The last couple of days I’ve been looking at and talking about, campaigns, particularly with some of those who as Liverpool fans organised the amazingly successful #walkouton77 in early 2016. It’s also a fascinating time, as we see the #PeoplesVote campaign emerge from right at the back of the pack, to now being one of the possible outcomes of the chaos surrounding Brexit.

I myself was involved in the pro-European movement in the months following the Brexit vote, stewarding on the first ‘March for Europe’, and then subsequently, working with a number of the early activists trying to organise the grassroots pro-Europeans through local, regional and national groups. Although I stepped away some time before the Peoples Vote campaign took off, I believe that the advice I provided and work I did, helped in some way to make what followed later, possible – the importance of coordination amongst activists and organisations.

All this thinking led me to a Twitterstorm, which I’ve now decided, merits a bit of a lengthier post on here.

The problem with creating and running campaigns from my experience, is keeping people focused on the goal, but not to the point where it becomes the only thing you focus on. Yes, you want change, but that’s not your sole measure – there’s so much work along the way to do.

One of the most important things you need to do is to build the case amongst your supporters (current & potential) for when the issue does become something you can actually act on. That means a lot of meeting people, talking with them, persuading them. Sometimes it’s about getting people to a position where even if they don’t agree with the ultimate aim of your campaign, they sympathise with what you’re seeking to do; kind of reducing the resistance to what you do and say.

Campaigns that fail, miss out on this element, and don’t build strength in their grassroots/key groups like Liverpool fans did, and like the People’s Vote has been doing. In fact to some degree, aside from the investigations and prosecutions the various authors of Vote Leave and associated campaigns are now facing, they did do this with theirs as well: it’s part of the reason they won the vote in 2016. What essentially happens as a result is that the noise begins to rise from ordinary people talking about this issue, and reaches those in a more elevated position: eg: MPs, political/media commentators – or club owners, for example.

Quite a of people when it comes to a successful campaign, will only ever really see something like the actual #walkouton77 itself, or the major achievement of the campaign – lower ticket prices. They won’t know what’s gone on behind the campaign to make it tick. Indeed, when it came to the #walkouton77 some supporters, naively in my view, started talking immediately about a series of national walkouts across the game, as though dominoes would fall.

This fatally misunderstands just how much work has to go into making a campaign work beyond your own organisation – to broaden the appeal. Indeed, many of the campaigns external to Supporters Direct that I saw or was approached to assist, failed – particularly ones about the running of football itself – because of this. Too many thought ‘website, petition, get SD’s ‘blessing’ or backing, launch, job done.’ They didn’t do the basics. Campaigns like #PeoplesVote – or indeed #walkouton77 – don’t just appear from the ether. They take painstaking work.

Another key element isn’t just leadership. You need people with good strategic brains, but also who, crucially, understand how a strategy translates into action. Without action, a strategy is just an academic exercise. A lofty aim with a set of disconnected tactics. A strategy isn’t just a collection of tactics though – doing things, and neither does doing things amount to a strategy. There has to be a direct connection between your aims and objectives, and what you do. The two need to ‘talk’ to each other.

I’ve tried to distil this down into five tips that make a good campaign:

  1. At the start, create a strategy: what is it you want to see change? Have that in your mind in everything you do and say: does what you’re doing or saying lead you in some way to that end? If it doesn’t, the general rule is ‘don’t do it’.
  2. Be patient. Your issue might take months – years – to be properly heard. Don’t base success on whether your issue is generating headlines now. It’s usually more about sensing the mood in your key constituencies.
  3. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that media activity is your primary tool or tactic, or that headlines mean anything more than that. Too many campaigns fail because they think that publicity generated is movement towards the overall aim. Often it isn’t.
  4. Strap yourself in: remember that you’re going to have days, weeks, months when nothing seems like it’s moving, or the mood in the camp is low. That’s as much a part of a campaign as anything else. Learn from it, keep focused and energised.
  5. Ensure that you have staging posts along the way: moments where you can celebrate the achievements of the overall campaign, e.g. a successful write-in campaign, a packed-out meeting that visibly lifted things, a successful meeting with a key influencer.
  6. Most importantly, remember you and your fellow campaigners are not robots.  Encourage rest and time away from the issue. It can also, conversely, be good to spend time together as human beings: a drink, lunch, a meal, whatever, together. You’re people who want to change your corner of the World, but you’re human beings who have limits.

I’m not saying that if you follow all of this you’ll have a successful campaign. What I am saying is that without all of these, you probably won’t have a successful campaign.

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