Linda Butcher: With careful planning, a campaign can have legs

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

How do you maintain the interest, engagement and support of participants and external stakeholders, including the media, in a long campaign? Over time, fatigue and over-familiarity can set in, yet there are numerous examples of long campaigns or movements that have maintained momentum over the years, such as the campaigns for the Freedom of Information Act and against smoking.

SMK was one of the more than 140 signatories to a recent letter to David Cameron asking the government not to water down the FOI Act, which received a wide range of press coverage. This is an important campaign for SMK to support. First, the law on this is part of Sheila McKechnie's legacy: she was involved 30 years ago in campaigning for the act in the first place. Second, SMK aims to protect or improve the environment for campaigning. This includes defending the act itself, the principles behind it and the fact that it is a vital and important tool for campaigners and a healthy democracy.

Many years separate the original campaign and this latest defence of the act, but this isn't so unusual. Most of us know that campaigning for something, winning it and sustaining it can all be part of a very long haul indeed.

The anti-smoking campaign has an even longer history. The public health charity Action on Smoking and Health has produced an extraordinary 76-page history of anti-tobacco campaigning. To pick just two key dates: as far back as 1693, smoking was banned in the House of Commons chamber; and in 1761, London physician John Hill performed what was possibly the first clinical study of tobacco effects and warned snuff users they were vulnerable to cancers of the nose. Most campaigns don't operate on this scale or for this long. But it is worth looking at others to learn how to stay the course.

There might be external matters beyond your control, but you can always address the things you have influence over, such as planning, strategy, objectives or a clear picture of what success looks like.

You don't have to be big to stick with it. Many grass-roots campaigners have also worked tirelessly over time to achieve justice. Tony Whitson, chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK has campaigned for those diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and mesothelioma. Gloria Morrison campaigns as part of Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association to prevent innocent people being wrongly convicted of serious crimes. They have both worked in changing environments and with shifting ground, opportunities and barriers.

As your campaign progresses and you set and meet targets and celebrate success along the way, you can keep people motivated and hold the campaign on track. If you stay alert and use the opportunities that arise, the media can continue to be engaged as well. The media coverage of the government's establishment in July of a Commission on Freedom of Information to review the workings of the act demonstrates this.

With the right planning, strategy and approach, your campaign can stay the course, even if it ultimately takes longer than you ever imagined it would.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

- The article was corrected on 2 November 2015; it originally said that Gloria Morrison was a lawyer.

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