Just Stop Oil: PR stunt masters, or just counterproductive?

Whether it’s covering the Madame Tussauds waxwork model of King Charles III with cake or throwing soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Just Stop Oil’s public demonstrations have polarised the media.

‘There is a place for being annoying, just make sure you annoy the right people’ (credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

Recent action by environmental coalition Just Stop Oil has been sparked partly by the introduction of the Brexit Freedoms Bill, which could remove all EU-derived regulations, including 570 environmental protections. Activists associated with Just Stop Oil have taken to the streets of Westminster with the goal to convince the Government to halt all new oil and gas licences and consents.

The Environment and Climate Change Committee recently published a report that found that “whilst the Government has introduced some policies to help people adopt new technologies, like electric cars, these have not been replicated in other policy areas and there is a reluctance to help people to cut carbon-intensive consumption”.

Just Stop Oil is a growing movement, currently holding 20 to 30 public meetings a week, both online and in person. Since the campaign began in April, its supporters have been arrested 1,880 times – seven are currently in prison.

The group certainly makes big claims about the lengths its activists are willing to go to. Just Stop Oil has vowed to continue its disruptive protests until the Government imposes the death penalty for their actions. A spokesperson told PRWeek: “History shows that non-violent direct action or civil resistance is the most effective way of achieving change.” 

But are the tactics effective, from a comms perspective, or do the headline-grabbing stunts risk alienating the very people they need onside?

“There is a fine line between impressing people with your daring and coming across as annoying or silly,” said James Lovell, creative director at Feejee Mermaid, the publicity stunts and events specialist agency. “While there is a place for being annoying, just make sure you annoy the right people.

“I think chucking soup over a Van Gough was a muddle and I am not sure about the significance of shoving a cake in Charles’ waxwork’s face, either. But both demonstrations were for a cause with which most sane humans agree. And many people are now aware of something that they otherwise would not have been.”

“Something positive was achieved,” Lovell added. “I do nevertheless believe that both stunts have annoyed a lot of the people they were targeting.”

Frankie Oliver, the founder of sustainability and behaviour-change specialist agency New Society, told PRWeek: “Despite negative media reporting, the recent campaign from Just Stop Oil has ensured that the climate crisis remains in the headlines, with research showing over 60 per cent of the public are in support of their action. But to really drive change at a policy level we need more than activism alone and high levels of concern.

“We need at least 3.5 per cent and ideally 10 per cent of the population campaigning for change and a strong public mandate for action across government, business, and society. And that mandate rests on educating and empowering the public to use their own voice, influence and action at work, at home, in their communities and on their social networks – with an engagement strategy that goes beyond media headlines and stunts and uses social learning, participation, consultation and co-creation to drive real action.”

Oliver urged institutions to work together to create "meaningful people power". She highlighted The People's Plan for Nature, put together by The National Trust, RSPB and WWF, which is set to be delivered to the government next spring.

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