The art of 21st century political protests – and preparing for when it is turned on government agencies and companies

The right for citizens to express political views and to protest (within limits) against specific acts, or inaction, by politicians is one of the fundamental and defining principles of democratic government and has been in place for, well, as long as there’s been democracies.

In fact this principle is one which democracies frequently use to differentiate themselves from other governance systems.

However the methods by which this principle is expressed is constantly changing – driven by the creativeness of individuals, changes in social values and the advances of technology.

Why is this so interesting?

Political protests are a fertile ground for innovations that are later applied to other protest movements, against industries, companies, social groups and directly against government agencies.

Protests directed against politicians and their ideologies are often a ‘canary in the coalmine’ that can be used to inform senior management, communications specialists and social media professionals what they may expect to be directed against their own organisations in the future and give them an opportunity to proactively take steps to mitigate any emerging issues.

This is why it is fascinating to watch the internet become one of the primary channels for political protests, with a range of new twists on old approaches.

We’ve seen significant use of older forms of protest adapted to the web. Platforms like Change.org have taken petitions and supercharged them by removing the need for collectors to travel widely to collect signatures and becoming the platform not only for the fast and simple act of signing, but for ongoing organisation and communication across issue-based groups to ‘maintain the rage’.

Some governments have even adopted online petitions approaches for their own purposes – taking back some influence and control, with the UK and US the best examples.

We’ve seen a virtual transformation of the physical blockade approach, favoured by activists and unions to deny companies labour, supplies or customers, and also used to prevent or add difficulty to staff and politicians entering political offices.

Online blockades, termed denial of service attacks, are however treated as criminal offenses rather than civil protests in many nations. This position reflects the importance of online commerce and the blurring of lines between activities which could be legitimate protests or criminally motivated activities by individuals or coordinated groups.

The old chestnut of ridicule is, of course, used widely, from parody tweets and videos to reusing the actual words, photos and videos of some politicians against themselves.

Politicians have even used parody as a tool to show their sense of humour and stand up to detractors – my favourite being the deliberate self-parody video of George W Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, an approach repeated, but not equalled (in my view) by his successors.

We’ve also seen new forms of parody emerge that could not easily be replicated in the physical world. From sites that allow people to virtually throw a shoe, water bomb or even punch a politician, to browser plugins that transform the words or photos of a politician.
Use of the Stop Tony Meow plug-in on the
Australian Prime Minister’s website
The most recent of these is the Stop Tony Meow plug-in, which automatically replaces photos of the Australian Prime Minister with cats and kittens.

As most communications professionals understand, unless these protests go far ‘beyond the pale’, make criminal accusations, are relentlessly negative and defamatory, are provably untrue or extend beyond common standards of social decency, often the best approach is to deny them oxygen. They can be ignored or laughed off while respecting the rights of others to hold differing views.

In many cases this ‘higher ground’ approach will blunt the impact, or even turn the protest in favour of the politician or issue.

In some cases acknowledging or taking actions in response to a protest might be counterproductive – leading to an escalation of protest actions, greater and more organised opposition to an agenda, or leaving a politician looking ridiculous and weak for ‘overreacting’.

Of course there are also many times when politicians should take note of these protests – where there is a clear groundswell of views on a particular matter, or the politician can satisfy the wishes of a group without compromising their agenda or other interests. Protests are legitimate and are a valid way to influence policy in a democracy after all.

So why should government agencies, companies and other groups take note of these protest activities?

Because, inevitably, some or most of these techniques will be turned on them and their interests.

It is important for all organisations to keep a watching brief on the evolving art of 21st century political protests and how politicians respond (or do not respond) to different techniques.

Being aware of the forms that protests can now take helps senior managers and communications professionals to proactively prepare their systems and processes to mitigate or blunt the potential impact of new approaches.

It helps them to prepare and select appropriate responses and thereby mitigate much of the risk and cost their organisations might face when these protest techniques are turned against them.

So keep an eye on how political protests evolve in the next few years, it may help you reduce stress, reputational or economic damage or even help preserve your organisation intact, should your organisation face similar forms of protest in the future.

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David B. Grinberg

Good points and interesting analysis, Craig. Gov agencies need to communicate proactively to quell such fires, have crisis communication plans in place and know when to implement them. Moreover, gov agencies need to define themselves before their detractors do so for them.