What makes a great campaign? Authenticity, indefatigability and a touch of the devil certainly help

Unless you have had your head in a hole for the past few months, you'll be aware that election season is in full swing, bringing with it a huge number of campaigns by different interest groups, from unions through to charities and industry bodies, all seeking to influence the policy and practice of whoever is next in government.

Have a vision and be authentic to achieve a great campaigning moment, says Peter Gilheany
Have a vision and be authentic to achieve a great campaigning moment, says Peter Gilheany
It was very timely, then, for the Sheila McKechnie Foundation to hold its 10th Anniversary Awards at the House of Lords on Monday, set up to honour the memory of Sheila McKechnie, an inspiring campaigner during her career with Shelter and The Consumers’ Association who described herself as a "fully paid-up member of the awkward squad".

As an agency, we spend a lot of time on the process of creating successful campaigns – understanding the audience and their attitudes, the influencers, levers and channels to reach them, the journey we need to take them on. 

All these things are important building blocks but it is worth considering the four magical ingredients that can make a campaign really take flight, exemplified by both SMK award winners and iconic campaigns from the past:
Have a vision – easy to say, harder to live up to. Lots of campaigns are really just tactics in a phony war between interest groups. Truly successful campaigns are underpinned by real vision, as illustrated by ‘Justice for the 96’, set up by the families of those who died at Hillsborough in 1989 and committed ever since to getting justice, ultimately leading to the inquest that will take place this year.
Be authentic – the success of 38 Degrees since the last election and its people-powered campaigning approach illustrates the power of true representation, and that worked in microcosm for Doug Paulley, who won the Campaigner of the Year at the SMK Awards. Doug is a wheelchair user campaigning for bus companies to enforce wheelchair priority, and has already taken the issue to the High Court and changed the approach taken by bus companies on the issue.
Never take no for an answer – campaigns are rarely linear, there are blind alleys and closed doors to negotiate, so indefatigability is a key quality alongside adaptability and entrepreneurialism. At the SMK Awards, Maya Foa, the winner of the Women Demanding Justice Campaigner Award, had to have the award collected on her behalf. This wasn’t because she wasn’t there, just at the moment of the award she was on her mobile haranguing the last European pharmaceutical company still supplying lethal injection drugs to US states that still have the death penalty.

Push the boundaries – sometimes this is literal, as in the Kinder Trespass in 1932 when 400 ramblers risked arrest and imprisonment through a mass incursion onto private land to raise awareness of the lack of access to the countryside, ultimately leading to the creation of our national parks. This can also be at the quirkier end of civil disobedience, like the villagers of Chideock who campaigned against traffic through the simple expedient of continually pressing the button on the pedestrian crossing to bring it to a standstill.

So what can agencies take away from this? 

Perhaps that all the clever strategy in the world can’t match the impact of genuine grassroots involvement and authenticity. 

You cannot – and should not try to – fake this authenticity, but social media provide the platform securing it for your campaign. 

That generally comes at a cost and that cost is normally control. 

This election year, agencies and their clients could do worse than loosening their grip on that control and letting the people take the lead.

Peter Gilheany is director of PR at Forster Communications

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