Risk in online campaigning

A key challenge for online campaigners is helping their organisations get a realistic understanding of the risks of using the internet to campaign. John Worth summarises some of the key points of a discussion at the 2010 eCampaigning Forum.

With hindsight the Atheist Bus Campaign looks like a perfect online campaign – it delivered concrete results and decisively changed the discourse in the UK about atheism. Yet the campaign approach adopted required the sort of risk taking that many NGOs simply would not be able to contemplate – hence my decision to convene an open space session at ECF 10 about risk in online campaigns. This article is a short summary of the risk debate in Oxford. For more about how the Atheist Bus Campaign worked see this blog entry (http://www.jonworth.eu/atheist-bus-why-did-it-work/).

Risk - Atheist bus
Ads funded by 'Atheist bus' campaign supporters appear on the side of a London bus


The first aspect discussed was whether the impression of risk is different internally and externally. Greenpeace was cited as a NGO that looked like it took risks to the outside world yet workshop participants cited examples of where even Greenpeace had rejected more unusual campaign proposals.

This led to a discussion of what could be done ‘under the radar’ – by feeding more radical ideas to individuals outside an organisation, or simply to try things out without the entire hierarchy knowing that something was happening.

There were understandable concerns about transfer of risk from an organisation onto individuals and a sense of general frustration that this only happened due to a lack of understanding within senior levels of larger NGOs about the relative dangers and opportunities of online campaigns.

Notably no participant was able to cite an example of where an online campaign had backfired in reputational terms; some campaigns had simply not worked, but there was no example among participants that had caused actual reputational or legal damage.

There was however a general and valid concern about ‘the mob’ – what happens when a campaign takes on its own form online and is left to users rather than an organisation? It was hence considered important to not associate with ‘the mob’ if possible as subsequent outcomes could be unpredictable – once more the Greenpeace approach to Nestle was cited, how Greenpeace had not strongly encouraged the arguments on Nestle’s Facebook page but had been happy to see that debate to develop. See http://ecflive.fairsay.com/21/how-not-to-use-social-media-nestle)

There is a delicate balance between legal, financial and reputational risk in online campaigning that was touched upon and undoubtedly needs more work in future. The essence here is that organisations behave towards risk online in the same way as they do offline, where a legal threat (or not) is the decisive factor. As numerous examples show (Alisher Usmanov and Arsenal (http://www.jonworth.eu/alisher-craig-boris-tom-the-bloggers-and-arsenal/) , or Nestle’s reaction to Greenpeace’s Orang Utan campaign (see above) the legal threat to online activities is decisively different from the situation offline – inflame bloggers and a law-based response can often backfire, making a story even larger.

The fear is that seniors in NGOs do not fully understand this – even in not-for-profit campaigns there is nervousness about a generational divide. There is hence the need for online campaigners to work horizontally across organisations to establish the level of trust and understanding necessary to persuade colleagues of the value of their work.

Last but not least there’s the reputational problem of doing nothing, the risk of not being a player online. Here the US Air Force’s approach to blogging and social media was cited – if an organisation such as the US Air Force (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremiah_owyang/3154057414/) can have a forward-looking strategy then surely NGOs can?

Jon Worth is a web designer, online campaigner, trainer and EU politics enthusiast.


by Jon Worth published Jul 05, 2010,
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