Citizen Action Monitor

So you want to fight city hall. Here’s how: Pt 3/3: Going to War

No 70 Posted by fw, September 26, 2010

As in Parts 1 and 2, the content of this three-part series is an adaptation of Liz Benneian’s presentation, Organize to Win. While some of the wording is different or augmented, I have tried to remain generally true to Liz’s concepts and main ideas.

The title of Part 3, Going to War, is Liz’s. In essence, the content is a collection of lessons learned from Oakvillegreen Conservation Association’s advocacy battles.

Lessons learned from campaign battles

Persistence is crucial to success. Advocacy campaigns take longer than you think. Never give up the good fight for the good cause.

Networking is crucial to success. Yes, you may have to fight decision-makers at city hall, but you will never win by only fighting city hall. You have to carry the battle into the public arena by attending to big-picture issues that concern and engage the public. In practice, the advocacy game is all about networking — i.e., communication and information gathering and dissemination – with the public, politicians and the media. Ensure your organization is represented at all organized meetings on an issue. If you can’t send a delegate, be sure to send your comments. Let people know where you stand. And if you feel an issue is not getting sufficient attention, it’s your job to find creative ways to make it an issue.

Every engagement is a battle for public opinion. Whenever you’re addressing councils, committees, or the media, remember, you are addressing a much larger audience – VOTERS — as well as the 60% or more citizens who don’t turn out at the polls. They must all be part of your target audience. But since voters are the citizens who tend to be the squeaky wheels, getting them onside in noticeable numbers is what spurs politicians to action.

Appoint an “official spokesperson(s)”. Limit the number of people who can speak officially on behalf of your group. Make it clear to your members that while they are free to express their ‘personal’ viewpoints to anyone at any time, they are not free to speak ‘officially’ on behalf of the organization. Delegating an “official spokesperson” ensures that the right message is being delivered in the right way to the right people at the right time and place. This precautionary measure reduces the liability risk.

Official spokespersons should be highly skilled. Above all, when speaking on behalf of the group, stay on point. Reporters trade in controversy, so be wary of being set up by leading “When-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife?” kinds of questions.

Clearly distinguish between what you’re for and what you’re against. It’s not enough to be against something. It helps to stay focused on the big picture. Avoid being drawn into arguments over nitty-gritty details. That won’t help you win. Keep your eye on the prize — winning is the goal. Stick to higher order principles and values. For instance, instead of arguing with someone over China’s CO2’s emissions, reframe the exchange by pointing out that (a) China’s per capita emissions are a fraction of Canada’s, and (b) China’s actions aside, that does not absolve us from our own moral responsibility to do what we can to mitigate our CO2 emissions. Being against China’s emissions is a distraction. Being for the mitigation of Canada’s emissions is a cause worth fighting for.

Attack the issue, not the person. Remember that you are seeking help/redress from the decision-makers. It doesn’t do you any good to vilify them. There can be exceptions to this, for instance when the goal is to remove someone from office, but even those campaigns must be carefully planned as issue- not person-based. So, go hard on the issue – do everything you can to show why it’s harmful, unhealthy, costly, or not the best of the alternatives that your advocacy group is advancing. Emphasize that your appeal is to decision-makers to make the wise and right choice.

Don’t allow yourself to be baited. Take the high road no matter how personally you are attacked by your opponents or how rudely they behave. You must always stick to your factual, responsibly informed position. In the face of shouting, insults and attempts to change the subject, maintain a calm and collected demeanor. Speak softly, yet persuasively. Keep bringing the discussion back to the critical issue and facts.

Reframing by rephrasing. Creating catch phrases and slogans is a sure-fired way to make your point and grab media and public attention. For instance, renaming the “North Oakville East Trail plan” as the “Cadillac trails plan” was a winner. So was renaming “the new energy from waste plant” as an “old 20th century solution to a 21st century problem”.

Frame your issue to fit your target audience. Rally people round the things they care about, whether it’s the environment, health or the economy. Environmental battles have been won by reframing them as “financial” or “human health” issues. Tailor your emphasis to the group you are talking to. If the pitch is to those whose primary concern is the environment then that’s what you emphasize. If it’s to business leaders, then focus on financial and economic matters. One message does not fit all.

Keep your members involved. Have them conduct a poll, make buttons, distribute lawn signs, take photographs, staff a picket line or information booth — whatever. Keep them meaningfully occupied or risk losing them.

Presume nothing about who knows what. Don’t presume that the public or the politicians already have the information they need. Don’t presume that politicians have read what you sent them or have read what’s in reports they’ve received. They are deluged with reports.

Meet personally with politicians. Sending elected officials or bureaucrats lengthy printed reports or emails is ineffective. The personal touch is absolutely necessary, so do meet with them, face-to-face. For instance, making concise, effective presentations before city council or committees, where you can be seen and heard, improves your chances of success. Just make sure you know and follow the protocol. Remember – in these settings, city hall has the power advantage. They’re the home team: you’re on their turf, playing by their rules, with their referees and time keepers. The setting is meant to intimidate you. Of course, filling council chamber seats with your supporters can neutralize their power advantage.

Petitions mean almost nothing to politicians. They can be useful to get a group started and motivated and to generate mailing lists. But a petition is a tactic or activity and not an effective strategy. Note: you can USE a petition as a tool to gain public attention and support, but, on its own, it’s not influential. Moreover, you risk lulling petition signers into thinking they’ve taken action on the issue.

Use PowerPoint sparingly. When used skillfully, PowerPoint can be an effective presentation tool to emphasize main points or to translate boring statistics into picture-clear charts and graphs. But PowerPoint can just as easily be a showstopper if used to display lengthy textual passages which are then read word-by-boring-word. So learn how to use it before you use it. And be sure to rehearse your presentation in advance in front of a live audience, inviting constructive criticism.

Cite “best practice” examples from other cities. All politicians want to believe they are doing what is best for their community. If you can show that another community is doing better, you may spur them to action.

Read non-verbal cues. During your presentation, maintain eye-contact, particularly with key decision-makers. Read the non-verbal cues – facial expressions, body language and the like, and be prepared to depart from your prepared text if it is clearly not having the intended impact.

You’re the expert. Never forget that you know more about the issue at hand than politicians do. While bureaucrats may know more than you do in some areas, having your finger on the public pulse gives you an advantage. You will have a better sense of what “ordinary working people” think about big picture issues. More importantly, you represent taxpayers who are paying their salaries. Don’t let anyone intimidate you.

Never try to out-expert ‘real’ experts. Ignore any high-priced experts brought in by developers, incinerator companies, pesticide industry etc. Stick to what you know best — your best evidence-based arguments, principles and values. Remind your audience that you speak for ordinary working people with legitimate concerns. Refuse to be intimidated.

Don’t ever let anyone call your advocacy organization a “special interest group”. This kind of labelling is calculated to raise public doubts about your group’s legitimacy and motives. Unlike developers, hired consultants and the like, who stand to make a profit, you represent no “special interest group” other than your community. You reap no financial gain if you are successful. Never let the other side forget that you represent community voters and taxpayers. Respond forcefully to every public allegation that you represent “special interests.”

Get the best help available. In preparing your case, seek out and consult with environmental groups that have winning track records in city hall skirmishes. They can provide reliable “do this, don’t do this, do this” advice, provide tips on how best to deal with key decision-makers, and refer you to relevant information resources, including other experts.

Challenge the “we need the money argument”. Always challenge the argument that development money is needed by the municipality. Development never pays for itself. Developers make their money and leave, leaving the municipality with costly road maintenance, infrastructure, and service bills. Development drives costs up permanently for a municipality, especially if the development is mostly residential.

Make it easy for politicians to agree with you. Simple requests that politicians can agree with, helps you to establish a personal relationship with them. Having said yes once makes it easier for them to say yes the next time.

Know the decision-makers. Don’t waste time and effort trying to sway those you know won’t be moved. Focus on those who might be receptive to your arguments. Target the fence sitters, the undecided, and the most thoughtful in their decision-making. Study and analyze your local politicians. What do they care about? What do they fear? Who has influence with them?

Preparation. Preparation. Preparation. As the old adage goes, “Fail to plan. Plan to fail.” Don’t leave anything to chance. The devil is always in the details.

Get to know the media. Meet with local newspaper editors. Get to know reporters. Make appointments to see them in person. Feed them information. Feed national columnists. Take people who can be helpful out for coffee or for lunch. Absolutely protect whoever is helpful to you and support them whenever you can.

Media coverage is over-valued. Don’t overestimate the value media plays in the success of your advocacy campaigns. When you get a letter or news release printed, yes, it makes you feel good and widens public awareness BUT it rarely changes the direction of a vote. The media can help build and support the strength of an organization but they can’t win the issue.

Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t compromise. Take a stand based on sound decision-making and stick to it. You may have a fall-back position, but never let the other side know what it is. If you stick to your guns, you might win everything you are asking for. If you eventually have to compromise, at least the compromise is much more likely to incorporate your ideas than if you give in early. Make sure all your people are singing from the same song sheet.

Don’t waste time whining. The key to winning is spending time strategizing about what tactics might work, picking the best ones, trying them, analyzing whether they were effective or not and then acting again. This cycle of strategizing, acting, analyzing is what will make you effective. Too often groups are paralyzed into inaction. You learn by doing. You can’t just talk. You must act.

Be proud of yourselves. What you are doing is absolutely essential to the proper functioning of a democratic society. Without active citizens our world would be a much less just and humane place.

Celebrate your victories. Too often we get so caught up in the battle, so worn out by the fight that we forget to stop and be grateful for the win. Yes, there is always another battle over the horizon but victories MUST be celebrated. It’s good for the soul, good for morale and will keep your members ready to engage again.


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