Direct action: Seizing the agenda

As Greenpeace has shown, direct action can be a powerful way to raise awareness of an issue. Kate Magee reports.

Greenpeace: call on governments to protect biodiversity

Passionate and necessary, or infantile and irresponsible? Whatever the verdict on direct action, when done well it is an extremely effective tactic to achieve prominence for an issue in the media.

Over the past 40 years, Greenpeace has been the most high-profile organisation to successfully and consistently use the technique to hijack the media agenda. As founder Mark Borkowski says: 'Greenpeace is bold and has direct action embedded into its DNA. It attracts have-a-go heroes. When it gets it right, it makes front page news. The Rainbow Warrior (Greenpeace's ship) was one of the greatest publicity exercises.'

Greenpeace's journey began in 1971, when activists set sail from Canada in an old fishing boat to witness US underground nuclear testing near Alaska. Fast-forward to 2008, and Greenpeace activists were climbing up a plane to campaign against a third runway being built at London Heathrow Airport.

The benefits of direct action are clear - creating big noise with small budgets. As WWF's head of campaigns Colin Butfield explains, powerful images such as a small Greenpeace boat versus a giant whaling ship can simplify complex issues for the public and give the media a news hook: 'These images can make a huge difference to how the public perceives an issue, and create a hook to start a conversation.'

But times are changing. 'Since 9/11, Greenpeace's targets are surrounded by security issues. There are legitimate security concerns, but now, if companies hear rumblings of direct action, the dark masters of black propaganda position them as terrorists to undermine them,' says Borkowski. 'It is a darker space now. It is now all about planning, the long tail and defending the participants with the backing of a lawyer.'

Digital channels have also had a major impact on direct action. Smart phones allow protesters to quickly disseminate pictures, videos and tweets about an action to a wider - and often global - audience. Greenpeace's head of media Ben Stewart says: 'Digital media allow you to bypass the cynicism of traditional media by going directly to people. It is also levelling the playing field. It is no longer enough just to hire a large PR agency to fight your battle, because an agency cannot control hundreds of thousands of people talking about something on social media.'

Direct action shows no sign of abating, with newer organisations such as Plane Stupid and UK Uncut making use of the tactic. As Butfield says: 'I think we'll see an increase in direct action in the next five years. Things are getting to a critical point in the environment. Organisations that have not used it in the past may decide to do so now.'


Ben Stewart: Head of media, Greenpeace

Greenpeace was founded on Quaker principles of bearing witness. If you see something you consider to be wrong, then you do something about it.

There were lots of journalists involved in setting up Greenpeace who wanted to create 'mind bombs' - moments or pictures that would instantly communicate to people what they were being told, why they were being told it, who the good and the bad people were, and what they were being asked to do about it.

Some things we do won't get attention, but we understand that the tactic of creative, non-violent direct action can capture people's imaginations and dramatically further campaign goals. It can help speed up the national conversation.

Direct action helps to level the playing field when you are running an asymmetrical PR campaign, when you are outgunned in terms of money, staff and media access. You need to get creative, passionate and go out on a limb.

It used to be that we didn't have to answer ridiculous accusations about security issues. After 9/11 there was wilfully provocative questioning from the media like 'the police thought you were terrorists'. It was all part of the mild, collective madness of the time. We don't get that so much any more.

Actions are now global. When we shut down BP petrol stations in London during the oil leak, previously it would been covered by the London Evening Standard, picked up the next day in The Guardian and The Times and maybe a knocking piece in the Daily Express. Now it trends worldwide on Twitter. The fact it is happening in London is less relevant than that it is happening to BP. When planning an action we have to think about our audience in a different way.

Direct action is a way to say people are willing to go to jail over an issue, they feel passionately about it. Don't you think it's time to talk about it?


Of late, I've possibly seen direct action closer to home than many people in PR. My daughter, Tess, was one of the Brighton 9, who super-glued themselves to the windows of Topshop in Brighton as part of UK Uncut's nationwide protests against public spending cuts.

The story hit the headlines and dominated the blogosphere at the end of last year. Their recent Brighton trial provided a second brilliant platform for the group to express their views, attract genuine top-level champions - including Caroline Lucas MP, who appeared as an expert witness - and continue to generate shedloads of digital and press comment.

Media-savvy? Not half. It ticked all the PR boxes - coverage, awareness, public support. The nationwide day of action even led to a question about tax avoidance being raised in Parliament.

But before we all rush to set up new direct action divisions, pause. As with PR, direct action is a double-edged sword. It can result in seriously negative as well as glowingly positive coverage. Stunts can go ignored. Weeks can be spent on planning that simply doesn't deliver. And it's an increasingly crowded space.

But, as Greenpeace can attest 40 years on, when it works, it works.

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