Seven secrets of successful stunts
The elusive element of surprise…
Stunts, be they seen as a vapid attention-getter, or a crucial moment which elevates your issue in the public consciousness, are a common part of many modern campaigns. Whether you’re organising a flash mob, unveiling a massive banner in front of the world’s media, or presenting a petition to policy makers, most effective stunts combine surprise and innovation.
Without getting into the weeds about what constitutes a ‘stunt’ or not, a well-planned stunt can be an effective way of engaging your campaign targets and supporters. However, as with other influencing approaches, getting this right requires some forethought. Here’s a 7-point starter-for-ten on what you should think about before your stunning stunt.
1. Legal liability
Always check the legality of what you plan to do. Is what you're going to do against the law? If so, that's a strong argument not to do it, but not necessarily a decisive one. Sometimes breaking the law is a necessary means to highlight the unjust or unfair nature of the law – see the history of civil rights movements across the world. But this can never be done lightly, and anyone participating in civil disobedience will need to be fully prepared for the consequences. If you are an NGO, bear in mind that if you encourage any members or supporters to break the law, your organisation be in for a world of legal pain along with them.
If what you plan to do is within the law, great - that's the first hurdle jumped. There are nuances – for example, depending on where your stunt is to be held, there will be differences in civil vs criminal penalties for different offences. There’s increasingly a lack of clarity on what laws apply to private spaces which are ostensibly in the public sphere (try holding a protest anywhere in the City of London!). But good legal advice will help you identify and answer those questions.
A key point is to always check out is about who owns the land on which you'll be doing your stunt, and what restrictions/requirements you'll need to respect. For instance, if you want to do anything outside the UK Houses of Parliament, you'll need to apply at least 6 weeks in advance to Westminster Council.
A stunt is not a campaign, nor necessarily the best means to get to the outcome you're looking for. Whenever you're considering a stunt, it's vital to weigh up the risk vs reward, as well as the alternative means to influence the people you're aiming to influence. I often ask clients “Is this stunt is just a means to give your activists something to do, or is this genuinely an action you think will take you closer to your goal?”
Above all, a stunt should be integrated into a comprehensive campaign plan. The stunt should help you deliver some aspect of that plan - garnering more media coverage, highlighting an aspect of the issue in question, engaging your supporters - but it's very unlikely to achieve the campaign goal on its own.
Taking a famous example, suffragettes chaining themselves to UK public buildings in the early 20th century in an attempt to gain the vote is an enduring symbol of that struggle. It was also effective at the time in raising awareness of that issue. But clearly there was far more going on at the time in terms of a legislative push, press campaign, and other influencing activities, which eventually helped push through successive Voting Acts.
What support do you have for your stunt from:
(a) your members/supporters,
(b) senior staff,
(c) other stakeholders who you might want on-side with your campaign?
If everyone is on-board with the plan (or likely to be), then you're set. If not, how might you be able to get people on board with the concept?
Who needs to know what and when? Half the impact of a stunt is in its surprise or novelty factor. However, given the points I've made above, you will need to share the general idea with a select group of people in advance. It's important to keep in mind how big the circle needs to be, and ensure everyone understands the need for confidentiality on specific details.
5. Briefing and trust
Depending on what kind of stunt it is, you may have a number of people there at the event. Make sure they are absolutely 100% crystal clear on:
· the message you're trying to get across
· activities they will be involved in on the day
· what they are permitted to do and say
· what they are NOT permitted to do and say (including what they should keep confidential before the stunt)
Depending on what you're doing and your organisation's attitude to risk, you may need to get people to sign an agreement to abide by the shared plan doing the stunt. That might also include a waiver absolving your organisation of liability if they don't abide by those instructions.
You only need one person to shout an obscenity, or jostle with someone trying to move them on peacefully, and the whole story is lost.
Equally, this can work the other way too. Mark Field MP's grabbing of Greenpeace activist Janet Barker at a Mansion House dinner event in June 2019 probably meant that the protest had more coverage than it otherwise would have. That said, in my view, the coverage then largely focussed on his manhandling of the female protester than the issues raised by the stunt itself.
6. Timing and context
When is it best to launch your stunt? There may be considerable external pressures or internal schedules which suggest a particular date and time. But those may not be related to the most effective time for that stunt.
Whether or not you'd define it as a 'stunt', John Carlos' and Tommie Smith's black power fist on the winners podium at the Olympics in 1968 was perfectly timed. They could potentially have done this at any other time on the field - at the start of the competition, before one of their events, or even refused to compete at the start in support of their message. However, they knew this was the point at which they would have maximum exposure in front of the world's press.
Like with any other kind of campaign action, it's worth thinking about what else is likely to be happening at the time of your stunt. That could be nearby (i.e. is there going to be another event just down the road) or more national (i.e. is the Chinese Premier going to be in town?).
You can only control what you present with your stunt, you can't control how the story will be told. So take the time to think carefully about how this could be perceived, and prepare follow-up media or other influencing activity to get the story you want out there (and rebut inaccurate or negative stories).
The Black Lives Matter UK's trespass and blockade stunt at London City Airport in Sep 2016 is one example of where it was too easy for opponents to spin the action as ill-conceived or inconsequential. Because the nine protesters were largely white British, many people found it difficult to link what they understood to be Black Lives Matter's concerns to the purported climate change focus of the stunt. This blurred the intended message.
All the above points assumes you have some time to think and plan about the stunt. I'd argue that the most effective stunts are typically those that have been thought through. It's true that random acts based on a gut feel can sometimes work - I wouldn't recommend doing that in an organisational context though!
If you’re considering a stunt for your campaign, or alternatively trying to convince people out of doing one, drop me a line! Happy to talk through the best path forward for an effective campaign.