By Jason Menard
Earlier this week, the Occupy London movement sent out a Tweet requesting help from more experienced volunteers to help them craft a message – which is a fantastic showing of self-awareness from this group as too much of their message is being defined by outside interests.
Occupy London is a polarizing group – and that polarization comes from their lack of anything tangible to which the average person can relate. You either agree that everything needs to change, or you see this as rudderless, aimless, misplaced, self-serving behaviour.
I’d like to think that most people would want to be part of the former group, but Occupy London is making it hard for Joe and Jill Average to wrap their arms around the cause – after all, when your beliefs and ideals are so ephemeral, they become hard to embrace.
In response to the Tweet – and as a guy with a fair bit of media and corporate communications experience – here’s what I would encourage Occupy London to do if they want to stay relevant:
Know your target demographic: this, of course, is everyone. Young or old. Affluent or poor. Your message is one that must be evenly embraced across all demographic lines. And, knowing that, you need to ensure that everyone is respected equally outside of your Tent City.
Knowing that your target demographic is everyone, don’t be elitist: I’ve encountered a number of protest groups, activists, and people passionate about a cause over the years. And where they often fall apart is on pretension. If someone doesn’t ‘get it’ at first, don’t criticize or insult: educate. If they refuse to get it, take the high road and respectfully agree to disagree. Nothing’s worse than being talked down to and nothing will turn a potential sympathizer away faster. And someone who criticizes the elite by being elitist in their own right? That’s hypocritical. Don’t be a hypocrite. Ignore Joe and Jill Average at your peril – they’re the ones who can make or break your movement.
Your leaderless, rudderless structure is admirable. It’s also confusing and, potentially, self-limiting: It’s one thing to say, ‘everyone’s invited!’ It’s another to expect people to join you or support your cause when it’s so hard to define. A local writer I’ve come to enjoy expressed her passion for the movement well here. But where I disagree is where she says people would rather Keep up with the Kardashians than embrace this messageless message. As a protest group, it’s your responsibility to share your cause with the masses in order to gain support. Joe and Jill Average shouldn’t have to come down and meet with everyone to learn what the message is about. Instead, an effective group will choose a few key points and stand behind them. Eventually, with no clear message people will tune out – and when that happens, any sympathy the average people may have had will be spent.
You scare people. Remember that: Sure, this is a peaceful movement. Sure, people can use the park with no problems. But you also have to respect other people’s fears. You don’t want to scare the nice 75-year-old woman, because she could support your goals. And disregarding her feelings or trepidation goes back to elitism – just because they don’t get it now, or are afraid, doesn’t mean they’re not valid feelings. Take a moment to imagine how it looks to those less sympathetic to your cause. Your Safe Space, whether you like it or not, is one that you’ve physically seized, in violation of bylaws. Your squatters’ movement is just as physically abusive as it would be if you were forcibly removed. Your refusal to leave is an act of physical intimidation. Remember that and make sure you behave with the utmost courtesy at all times so that your supporters continue to overlook it.
Don’t get complacent with buzz words. Speak from the heart and be honest: Honestly, “safe space”? You lose people with this type of catch-phrasism, just as much we all are offended by Biz Speak. One of the reasons why it’s important to define a few key points is to avoid getting lost in vague, empty phrases that mean nothing. When your words mean nothing (and this is extremely important in both business and activism), the value of your movement is equally devalued.
Treat everyone with respect: You are going to be unfairly targetted, you are going to have critics try to represent you in a negative light, and you will be under constant, heavy scrutiny. It’s not fair, but suck it up. Don’t complain, don’t criticize, and don’t be petty. Already you’re pushing the envelope and making some very uncomfortable – don’t push it.
It’s easy to get caught up in the counter-cultural attitude. It’s easy to rattle sabers and talk about taking down the establishment – but it won’t work. You need to affect change from within, you need the support of those in power, and – most importantly – you need to prove to the masses that your message (whenever you decide exactly what that will be) is valid. There are those looking for a reason to discredit you or discount your efforts.
Don’t give it to them.
Strip away all the excuses, remove the fear and uncertainty, and give the masses something that they can wrap their heads – and their hearts – around, and you’ll do more than just occupy Victoria Park or just Occupy London.
You’ll Occupy Londoners’ hearts.