Linda Butcher: If you need to use shock tactics, do it with care

Be provocative when it's needed, but be clear as to why this is the best tactic to use, and make sure you understand the risks, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation's 10th Anniversary Campaigner Awards, which took place in February, got me thinking about what makes a good campaign and who decides. Our external judging panel was looking for real impact, mobilisation and evidence that something had changed, but they also found that inspiration and media exposure were important factors.

There are many memorable campaign moments and actions, but did they – and we – make a difference? How many turned out in the streets to protest against the Iraq war, bought a Make Poverty History wristband or purchased a charity single?

Election campaigns are easier – someone wins. They're similar to fundraising or marketing campaigns in that you can measure numbers and the income generated. But influencing campaigns are not always straightforward, and the actual process of campaigning can be as important as the outcome.

SMK draws on different campaigns for good practice, lessons and impact and as examples for others to learn from. Occasionally we have to ask ourselves: do the ends justify the means?

Alex Smith co-founded Harrison's Fund, a charity in his son's name that raises funds for and raises awareness of a little-known disease called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Harrison's Fund placed a newspaper advert that featured a picture of Alex holding his terminally ill son and the words "I wish my son had cancer" emblazoned above. Alex received a number of angry and offensive messages as a result of the advert, but he says that "being blatant is one of the only ways that small charities can gain the same traction and voice that larger organisations do". Harrison's Fund followed that up with its "I wish my son was a dog" campaign.

These have parallels with the campaign carried out by Pancreatic Cancer Action last year, which showed images of people who have the disease with the caption "I wish I had breast cancer".

The campaign caused controversy and a backlash from other cancer charities. However, the charity's chief executive, Ali Stunt - herself a pancreatic cancer survivor - believes the advert achieved its aims: she said at the time that "millions of people are now aware who weren't a week ago" and the symptoms page on the charity's website received a spike in its viewing numbers.

Passion and emotion are powerful forces for any campaign, and sometimes we need to use tactics that are daring or shocking. If it pays off, great. But if it doesn't, you could spend precious time trying to repair the damage. By all means be provocative when it's needed, but be clear as to why this is the best tactic to use, and make sure you understand the risks.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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