Expert View: Three steps to campaign heaven

In the past few months, the issue of human rights in China - specifically, China's role in Tibet - has hit the front pages of just about every newspaper in this country and around the world. In a series of highly visible events, protesters have managed to convert what was intended to be a celebration of the forthcoming Olympic Games into one big embarrassment.

The protests have led to a number of high-profile figures distancing themselves from the Beijing Games, some soul-searching on the part of the International Olympic Committee and publicity for a cause that has been a sleeping campaign for many years. So what lies behind this phenomenal success?

First, it's down to tactics. The Tibet campaign groups have focused their energies on direct action stunts and protests rather than engaging in private advocacy or postcard campaigning. It is a strategy that has been extremely effective in securing media coverage and raising awareness. As a result, the campaign has achieved a profile and a potential supporter base that would have been impossible to reach without a strategy based on direct action.

Second, the Free Tibet groups that have spearheaded many of the protests demonstrate some key features of contemporary global campaigning. Free Tibet is a loose network, not a tight-knit organisation. Its structure is light and flexible, and is based on the use of a considerable degree of autonomy on the part of each group. It is a structure that gives the campaign a global reach, and the form of protests or events can be varied to reflect cultural sensitivities. This diversity of campaigning techniques gives practical expression to the old axiom about thinking globally but acting in a way that will be effective locally.

And third, the secret is to get the timing right. A great campaign idea can fail to take off if it is launched at the wrong time. Just look at the success of the recent MP-led campaign to reverse the consequences of the abolition of the 10p tax band. When the proposal was first launched, Frank Field was a lonely, dissenting voice. But a year later, at a time when the proposal is about to come into effect and its impact is staring everyone in the face, when the feelgood factor has been knocked for six by the credit crunch and bank bail-outs, the campaign has achieved a resonance and level of support that was unthinkable when the idea was mooted.

- Ian Leggett is director of People & Planet


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