The Changing Context for NGO Campaigning

The consistent two-punch theme of World Streets is that (a) we are losing the sustainability wars (no argument there, eh?) because (b) we are quite simply not very bright. Look, how complicated can it be? When it comes to the issues of sustainable transport we really do know what to do (i.e., get our act together and start to rip carbon out of the system, and do it now). But we are somehow not able to get our fundamental messages across. We also have this communication problem. So when someone like Keith Sutter from Sydney has an idea for us, well we listen and try to learn. Let’s have a look and see if we can learn something.


I was asked recently to comment on some proposed campaigns by an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO). Here are some general comments on the way that the campaigning context today is now much more complicated than it was.

1. From “Broadcasting” to “Narrowcasting”

One change has been the move from “broadcasting” (a small number of, for example, TV stations transmitting to a large number of people) to “narrowcasting” (a large number of TV stations transmitting to a narrow, specific group of people).

I joke in my speeches that if a stranger in a capital city (with a large number of potential radio stations to choose from) were first to tell me about which is their favourite radio station, then I would quickly know a lot about them. For example, a person who listens to a “serious talk” publicly-funded radio station is unlikely to also listen to commercial contemporary music stations

Alongside the traditional media, we now of course also have the social media eg Facebook: even more “narrowcasting”.

In summary, I suggest we have “de-massified” society so that it is now impossible to fashion one standard message that will suit – or reach – all audiences at any one time.

2. Who are the “opinion formers” now?

In the old days, it was usually necessary to reach only a small number of senior people (usually pale, stale, males) to change government policy. These were often called the “opinion formers”: people (usually men) with a disproportionate amount of influence in the media.

Now it is necessary to operate across a variety of media, targeting a variety of people because in a de-massified society it is no longer possible to always see who has the power to influence others.

“You never know which piece of coal blows the whistle”. You can never be sure what event or form of media coverage could trigger an avalanche.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon is a good example. The video clip of her stunning appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent” reached Australia a day after it was broadcast in the UK (via Internet users forwarding it on) and by Thursday of the same week it had become the most watched You Tube clip that day in the US. By the following weekend she was in negotiations over a recording contract. She had become a global “hit” in about a week.

In summary, I suggest an NGO needs to use a variety of media to reach a variety of people with a variety of messages (albeit around a common theme). The “down-market” commercial media and social networks are just as important as the “serious” publicly-funded media outlets,

3. Rise of Epistemic Communities

A by-product of the de-massified society is the rise of epistemic communities: where people think the same thoughts and only communicate with each other in that same small group. Despite the alleged internationalizing effects of globalization, we still live in small communities – only now they cross national borders. An Indian legal expert, for example, may have more in common with follow legal experts in (say) the US or Europe, than with the peasants outside that person’s own home.

The global financial crisis is a good example of this. The finance industry all had the same ideas about how to make money and ignored the warnings of “outside” people, for example, those concerned about society getting into too much debt. Meanwhile the financial regulators (often in the same capital city district a few blocks away) failed to do their own job because they were in their own epistemic community.

The implication here is that the urgency that members of an environmental NGO may feel for their own particular issue may be not shared by most other people in other epistemic communities.
In the example of environmental NGO campaigns, most people in western countries would probably feel that everyday life is actually getting better and that there is not much of an environmental problem. They do not share the fears of environmental NGOs which may be worried about, for example, climate change. Indeed, I grew up in post-war London – the evil, thick fogs of my childhood have long since gone and the Thames is cleaner now than when I was a child. I happen to share the concerns of environmental NGOs but I can also see how a person in my situation could easily claim that life is getting better and better compared with what they would have known in their childhood.

The risk is that environmental campaigners speak only to their own fellow members (in their own epistemic community) and so they don’t reach a wider audience.

4. From “Leaders” to “Followers”

Traditionally “leaders” would stake out their point of view and invite potential followers to get behind them. For example Winston Churchill in the 1930s warned the British about the German menace and he was ignored. But then in 1939/1940 suddenly the British turned to him for leadership and he became Prime Minister in May 1940.

Now we have “followers” – leaders wait to see where the crowd is running and then run in front of the crowd and claim that they have always had that point of view. They will often replay back to the crowd the fears of that crowd. As the crowd changes its mind, so the “leaders” will change theirs.

A standard example of this process is the “war on terror”. The risk of being killed by terrorists in western countries has been greatly exaggerated (the average American stands a far higher chance of being killed through food poisoning). But thanks to the saturation media coverage, there is a perception among the public that there is a high risk of dying in a terrorist attack and so the politicians heed that fear by replaying the fears back to the voters and have introduced overly elaborate security measures.

The Washington DC-based German journalist Gabor Steingart has even warned that the “war on terror” is a diversion from the real threats to the US. “…our fears have been spun out of proportion. The Taliban consists of military dwarves and political pygmies. A country like Iran, with the gross domestic product the size of Connecticut’s and a military budget only as big as Sweden’s, doesn’t deserve the attention of the entire American public and its government”. The real issue is not so much terrorism as the comparative decline of the US economy and the rise of the Asian powers such as China .

If the leaders perceive that the environment (or any other issue) as not being of any real interest to the voters, then they won’t to give leadership on it.

5. Rise of “Info-Tainment”

A fifth change has reflected the growing comfort of media consumers. Life is a great deal easier now for most people in all western countries. The appalling poverty and violence that marred their lives has been reduced; even a black man can become of President of the United States (which would have been unthinkable, say, in 1970 only 40 years ago).
This progress has led to changes in the media. In the 1930s, 1940s and then the Cold War (1945-91) the news could kill you. The Great Depression of the 1930s; followed in the early 1940s by the possible invasion by German, Italian or Japanese dictators (depending on where one lived); and then after World War II the threat of nuclear war were all, so to speak, “bad news”.

Now the news is not nearly so “bad”. There has been, for example, a reduction in international conventional warfare. The most dangerous period to have lived in the past 110 years was 1900-50; since then the number of wars and the number of people killed in them have both declined. Terrorism, as noted above, is not a major cause of death in the western world. The “bad” news is in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere all outside the western world – and those areas hardly rate a mention (unless western tourists accidentally get caught up in the foreign violence).

Therefore, we have moved from serious media reporting and discussion of “big issues” and “bad news”, to entertainment items such “lifestyle”, sport and cooking food. The news is a mixture of light information and entertainment: “info-tainment”.

In summary, environmental NGOs began their campaigns in the late 1960s/ early 1970s at a time when western media consumers were also hearing other “bad” news. It all seemed of one piece – the possible “end of the world” by either nuclear weapons or environmental destruction.

Now there is far less appetite for “bad” news. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of the scepticism about climate change – the warnings seem now so distant and so abstract compared with the earlier risks of war. The planet evaded a nuclear World War III and so many people feel assured that the environmental warnings are equally misplaced.

I think that optimism may be misplaced and that the planet is facing grave resource shortages etc. But it means that environmental messages need to be refashioned to be effective.

6. From “Head” to “Heart”

To conclude, environmental NGOs (and all other NGOs) are now operating in a new media and political context. Here is a final comment on lobbying.

Traditionally, NGOs have gone for the “head”: trying to meet ministers to convey their point of view etc. This was a “Buchanesque” world. John Buchan (1875-1940) was a popular Scottish novelist (eg “The 39 Steps”) and then Governor-General of Canada. His many novels depicted a world where the “good guys” (and usually they were wealthy, well educated white men) were well-connected, members of the right London clubs, knew the right people and could muster resources that the average person could not – in order to defeat the “bad guys” (such as German spies).

NGOs lived with a “Buchanesque” paradigm. If they could only meet the right ministers and present them with logical arguments then they hoped to change policy. If the polite approach didn’t work, they could try to get the attention of the politicians with demonstrations.

I suggest NGOs need to move from the “head” to the “heart”. In other words, who actually makes policy? It is not the ministers at the top because they often now don’t really understand what is going on. Life is now so complicated. The skills of politicians are in winning elections and not getting a detailed grasp of the details of policies.

A good example of this process is the way in which “new right economic rationalist economics”/ “free market economics” replaced the traditional Keynesian approach to national government economic policy. The revolution began with conservative leaders in the US (Ronald Reagan) and the UK (Margaret Thatcher) and Labor leaders in Australia (Bob Hawke and Paul Keating) and New Zealand (David Lange and Roger Douglas). The party labels made little difference – they were all reading from similar scripts.

Who wrote those scripts? The “technostructure” – in John Kenneth Galbraith’s phrase (The New Industrial State, 19867) – did the work. The politicians simply did the talking.

Martin Feil, a former senior Australian bureaucrat, has recounted his experiences: “I have never been to a meeting with ministers where advisers and public servants were not present; often the minister’s only contribution has been to say “Hello” and “Goodbye”. I appreciate that captains of industry have private audiences with political decision-makers, but I wonder about the efficacy of such meetings. The billionaire or CEO often isn’t across the detail of what he wants to know or ask for, and the minister doesn’t necessarily know what he is talking about and may have difficulty relaying the substance and purpose of the meeting to his advisers” .

The implication here I suggest is that NGOs need to spend more time with the “script writers” working within the “heart” of the bureaucracy, such as serving on government.

There will still be a need for some NGOs to have an “impolite” approach (such as with demonstrations) because they draw the debate’s options far more out to one end (and reduce the risk of epistemic thinking). Other NGOs can present the ‘heart” with more “moderate” options and so gradually shift government policy.

Will it work if the world is facing a looming environmental catastrophe? Do we have enough time? British writer HG Wells is reputed to have said that life is a race between education and disaster. A century later that is still the case. We just need to find new ways of doing the “educating”.

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About the author

Keith Suter is a futurist and media personality in the areas of social  policy and foreign affairs. His first doctorate was in the international law of guerrilla warfare and his second in the economic and social consequences of the arms race. He is a member of the Club of Rome, President of the United Nations Association (NSW) and President of the Society for International Development (Sydney Chapter). He lives in Sydney Australia and can be via .

One thought on “The Changing Context for NGO Campaigning

  1. I agree that people’s quality of life has improved in recent years, but that is
    surely mostly due to improvements in technology. In terms of the way we organise
    things, we have retrogressed. As far as I am concerned the two main
    manifestations of this are the takeover of our streets (and some rural roads) by
    traffic and the loss of public transport in rural areas.

    The deterioration in the quality of our environment may not make headline news
    but it is happening all the same. Buildings of character are replaced by
    ubiquitous suburban type development. Roads get ever harder to cross. Shops and
    other facilities move from people’s local neighbourhoods to inaccessible retail
    and business parks. And so on. No amount of infotainment can disguise this.

    Those who devised the unlovely neoliberal economic paradigm certainly haven’t
    taken the people with them, at least in the UK. Poll after poll has showed that
    most people have retained their communitarian values.

    Whatever Mr Suter says, I believe that while the mass media may have lost some
    of their dominance they still have enough to influence politicians in what they
    think will appeal to the electorate. And this is what ultimately matters, not
    what the electorate actually thinks, what environmental activists think, or what
    politicians think.

    Simon Norton


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