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Protest PR: A powerful vehicle for change

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Farmers literally ‘went to town’ on 16 July voicing their disapproval of what they believe is heavy handed and impractical Government regulation of our primary sector.

The protests were organised by farming group Groundswell and were partly in response to the Government’s decision to tax diesel vehicles.

It was clear from the number of tractors and utes that gridlocked our towns and cities that farmers are fed up and feel their voices are not being heard.

But does mass protesting work? Is it the most effective way to get the message through and, most importantly, create change?

The story dominated mainstream media, social media and even attracted attention internationally. The images of thousands of farm vehicles on urban streets were visual fodder the media couldn’t resist!

If farmers’ short-term objective was to draw attention to the fact that they feel underappreciated and condemned, then yes, I’d say the initial objective of the protest worked.  Farmers taking drastic action certainly got everyone talking. But the big question is, was the Government listening and what change, if any, will come about as a result?

The true power of the protest to spark change may take months or years to gauge its success.

A protest certainly has its place in the PR toolkit.  I would say it works best when it’s an issue the masses can get behind, its easily understood by a range of audiences and when other avenues of communication have been exhausted or deemed ineffective. 

So, if you ever find yourself thinking about organising a protest, what are some things to keep in mind?  I’d say there are four essentials for an effective protest:

Keep your message simple

To rally the masses behind your cause, you need to keep your message simple yet emotive to garner the greatest public support.

While the farmer protest did this relatively well, there was some chatter on social media from our farming communities seeking to clarify for their urban cousins the reasons behind the protest. Amidst all the hype, perhaps some of the farmers’ messages weren’t as simple as they could have been.

During the following days, media coverage and opinion pieces from primary industry leaders sought to clarify the message, which was good. 

Couple your message with a spectacle

What really got us all talking was seeing tractors, utes and farm equipment driving the highways and city streets right across the country.  This was a stroke of genius.

Think of some of the most famous protests – they often had an amazing visual element to them.

Think about the Springbok tour demonstrations, Whina Cooper’s land march to Parliament, the Bastion Point occupation, School Strike 4 Climate events and others.

Rally your supporters ahead of time

You’ll want to touch base with some high-profile supporters ahead of your protest to encourage them to speak out in favour of your cause.  This will lend credibility to your objective.

With the farmer protest, we did see a few primary industry organisations distance themselves from what was a very political protest.  So, perhaps this could have been done a bit better. But keep in mind that you’ll never garner 100% support for a protest.  Its very nature will cause some people and organisations to run the other way, or sit on the fence and watch rather than get amongst it.

Don’t forget your post-protest plan

You did your protest.  Now what?  A great protest needs a plan to keep your cause in the public eye, in front of government (in this case) and key stakeholders. In some ways, the harder work happens after the protest. You’ve got people’s attention, now you need to put some detailed steps into action to get the end result across the line.

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About Author

Heather Claycomb is director of HMC, a Hamilton-based, award-winning public relations agency.