Expert view: Airport protest won over public

Campaigners spend lots of time and money developing their communications strategies to get their causes covered by the media.

But none of the festivals and celebrity-supported events of the summer came close to matching the media coverage achieved by the Camp for Climate Action held last month at Heathrow Airport.

Here was an event organised on a financial shoestring and run by a loose network that has no brand and no office. So how did the event get so much coverage?

A campaign can be attractive if it fits into existing mental frameworks, and one that is deeply rooted in our culture is the framework of the little guy against the powerful authority. This draws on deep-rooted connections to our concept of justice and of right and wrong - the kind of connections that campaigners are always looking for.

BAA, the company that owns Heathrow, unintentionally gave the camp a massive boost when it went to court seeking an injunction that proposed a range of restrictions affecting everyone, from the judge hearing the case to passengers on London Underground's Piccadilly Line.

And so the story took on David and Goliath proportions. The camp was transformed in the public's eyes from a bunch of hippies and anarchists who will protest about anything into the little guy speaking out against an unreasonable and intolerant corporation.

The nature and extent of the coverage of the camp might also reflect changing attitudes to campaigning. In a survey on public attitudes to campaigning conducted last year by sector think tank nfpSynergy, 35 per cent of respondents said they would be prepared to boycott companies with which they were unhappy. And one-third said they would be prepared to take part in protests.

As confidence in our political system diminishes, the evidence suggests there is a growing interest in and sympathy for more direct forms of action.

The Camp for Climate Action is also a timely reminder of the value of coalitions. The camp benefited from its association with organisations such as the National Trust and the RSPB through the Airport Watch coalition. That it was supported by a coalition with so many middle-class members was hard to reconcile with BAA's portrayal of the camp as a threat to airport security. Creating coalitions can sometimes be frustrating and time-consuming for the organisations involved, but if the camp had been the initiative of just one organisation, it is hard to imagine that it would have received such positive and extensive media coverage.

- Ian Leggett is the director of People & Planet 

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