Senior comms figures disagree over the merits of confrontation as form of protest

As campaign groups plot headline-grabbing protests, PR chiefs have disagreed on the merits of confrontational direct action as a form of campaigning.

In the spotlight: direct action
In the spotlight: direct action

Last week, Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said the two large-scale student demonstrations of the past fortnight had been marred by a previously unseen level of violence.

He warned the country was entering into a period of civil unrest,’ adding: ‘The game has changed.’

But London Fire Brigade head of comms Richard Stokoe suggested direct action was the most effective way of protesting, although at greater risk to a campaigner’s reputation. He said: ‘What about the poll tax riots? They managed to bring Thatcher down and yet the far bigger march against the Iraq War – which was peaceful – changed absolutely nothing. I’m not advocating such things, but it is interesting to see what actually works.’

He pointed to his own fire service’s strikes as an example. ‘Bonfire night threats of strikes did more for cut-through into the political and media world than the strikes they had held in the three weeks before their announcement. Yes, there were lots of anti-noises, but it certainly moved it much furt-her up the political agenda.’

However, Forster director Peter Gilheany said that violence lets those in power ‘off the hook’, as the focus moves to the violence at the expense of the issue. He added: ‘Campaigning groups need to channel that anger for positive use by being really focused, clear, insistent and positive – the Robin Hood Tax campaign is a great example of that.’

Portland Communications partner Steve Morris said the real challenge for protesters was to persuade people that their particular cause is ‘different from all the others’.

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