Tactics for mobilising and developing grass roots action

An advocacy campaign is nothing without support from some quarter. For most campaigns this means support from the ground up - broad community support - and so you'll need to engage in exercises that provide an opportunity for people to get involved. This will raise awareness of your issue and generate debate that you hope will influence decision-makers.

The Tactics

Even if you only need a small handful of people to do the work (as with lobbying, for example), you need the backing of large numbers to give your cause legitimacy. In grassroots campaigns, sheer numbers are often the most powerful tool you can evoke.

Tactics for mobilising people are as limitless as the imagination. Try to be as creative as you can so that your operations stand out (this can also help to attract media attention).

Shock tactics may alienate people, or may affect them deeply. You'll need to be careful. On the other hand, fun tactics will often engage a wide variety of people.

Below is a list of the most common tactics employed by advocacy groups. Don't feel limited by what is here - they're just suggestions, don't be afraid to mix and match them. You will also probably employ different tactics at different stages of your campaign depending on your needs. It is rare that one tactic on its own will be effective.

  • Lobbying
    Lobbying is an attempt to influence the policy of an organisation or policymaker. This can be a parliamentarian, a local councillor, a business, or perhaps even another community group. In the end you'll have to be able to show why your point of view should take primacy over the point of view of other stakeholders. See our helpsheet on Advocacy for Legislation and Regulation for more details.

  • Fun Tactics
    Mobilisation methods that fall under this category can be highly creative. They include things like street performances, art shows, and workshops (and these are often used at rallies to lift the people's mood and create enthusiasm). Humour plays a big part.

  • Direct Action
    In Direct Action somebody puts their body on the line to stop something happening, whether it's stopping someone bulldozing a tree or stopping the functioning of a workplace through a strike or an occupation. This approach is confrontational; it often attracts media attention, but involves legal (and sometimes physical) risks. For that reason Direct Action tactics are usually only used as a last resort (i.e. when the bulldozers are moving in). Actions employing these sorts of tactics will only ever be successful if they enjoy popular support from enough people.

  • Petitions/Letter-writing
    Petitioning is a great non-confrontational method of engaging people. The effort required is minimal - it takes only a few seconds to put your name and address on a bit of paper - which increases your chances of getting people involved. It also engages people and gets them thinking about the issue. The petition can later be used in your lobbying exercises, or a sympathetic member of parliament can present it to parliament. Protest meetings are an ideal place to get signatures for a petition, but so is the local shopping centre or anywhere else where a large number of local residents congregate. Perhaps the hardest part of petitions is actually using them.

    Remember, you need to be able to identify the signatories to a petition - and this means having at least an email address but preferably a physical address as well. Entirely too many petitions simply do not get enough details from the signatories and are rendered useless. Anyone can make up 200 names from random suburbs and write them down. You need to be able to prove that these people actually exist.

    Letter-writing requires a little more effort from participants than petitioning, but these campaigns tend to carry more weight than a simple petition. One way to get people involved in letter-writing is to write a standard letter (and even pay the postage, if your organisation can afford it), and get people to sign it. However, standard letters are never as effective as a letter someone has written for themselves. One personal letter is probably worth 100 names on a petition. A good compromise position - combining the potential for critical mass afforded by the standard letter with the impact of a personalised letter - is to provide some suggested points people can use in their letters. The lazy ones can cut and paste, the more creative ones can add their own personal touches.

  • Rallies and Marches
    A rally or march never occurs spontaneously. When the biggest protests in history occurred in opposition to the move to war in Iraq early in 2003 they happened because of months of intensive groundwork by countless community groups around the world. These sorts of events create a public display of sentiment and can show policymakers and members of the public that there is a high level of grassroots support for your issue (it's also worth noting, though, that they didn't prevent the war). A lot of publicity and planning needs to go into staging a rally. As well as creating enough public awareness to spur people to turn up, you need to inform police, organise speakers, organise sound systems and so on. Rallies and marches are a central part of modern advocacy, but are not something to be entered into lightly. Having families and a wide cross-section of the community involved can help lend further legitimacy to your event. See this helpsheet for more information on how to plan and stage a rally or march.

  • Internet
    You must have a web page. This will be your first point of contact for many supporters, as well as for opponents and the press. For details on how to set up your web page, see our help sheet Internet Advocacy - The Basics.

    The computer age has also ushered in a new form of activism with a huge variety of different tactics. All these tactics require varying degrees of technical knowledge, but they have the ability to reach a huge audience at the touch of a button and at a very low cost. Read more about the various tactics for internet advocacy on our help sheet Internet Advocacy - Tactics

  • Ballot box
    No matter how undemocratic or how horrible a policy or action of a government or member of parliament can be, they are ultimately accountable at the ballot box. It is probably this that has the greatest influence on a government's policy and actions. Protesting at the ballot box can take a few different forms.

    The simplest and most effective form of ballot box advocacy is to convince enough people that the issue is important enough to vote an elected official out of office - or at least to give them a good scare.

    Informal votes are also considered by some to be a good way of protesting at the ballot box, avoiding giving the major parties any preference at all. It used to be that by voting incorrectly your vote wasn't counted. However, these days your voting card is counted up to the mistake. For example, if there are five candidates and you vote using the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, the two candidates with a 4 beside them will not be counted but 1, 2 and 3 will be.

    Another tactic used at the ballot box is to write a protest note on the voting card. This was used in the 1983 federal election where preventing the damming of the Franklin River was a major issue.

    To find out more about how your voting system works in both the federal and state or territory parliaments refer to the Australian Electoral Commission. The AEC website has details on how each of the systems works, which should give you a good idea on how to vote strategically.

  • Public meetings
    Public meetings are a good way to put an idea on the table, to encourage the discussion of ideas, and to promote exposure to a diversity of opinions. Public meetings can involve an open microphone, where anyone can come up and talk, or you can have a panel of people (usually "experts") discussing the issue, or you can have a "learn-in" where you occupy a room or building and provide a discussion on the issue that you are protesting, or you can have a speaker, or you can organise any combination of the above.

    Often the biggest hurdle to a campaign will be lack of public awareness, and public meetings can stimulate people to think about the issue. (Often, of course, most of the people who'll attend your meetings are already in favour of your opinion and will have a reasonable awareness of the issue.) The main aim of a public meeting should be to try to work towards a solution or offer some alternatives on the issue you are debating.

  • Non-participation
    It may seem like a paradox, but non-participation can be a very powerful advocacy tool. Non-participation can take many forms. The most common form of non-participation is the boycott, but other forms can include not voting, not paying tax (or not paying the proportion of tax that goes towards the thing you are objecting to). Passive resistance may also fit into this category.
There are countless different methods you can employ in order to make a point. Whichever methods you choose will depend on what's appropriate for your cause and who your target audience is.

Seize upon any public event to promote your campaign or publicise future events through leaflets, merchandising, and collection of donations and signatures.

Remember also that you want to make a statement - loudly. If no one hears it, what's the point? Media coverage is essential. See our Marketing and Communications Centre for details on how to use the media to sell your message.

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