Harvard Climate Justice Coalition: diverse campaigning tactics

guardian harvard


I read this article today, which tells the story of the “Harvard Climate Justice Coalition”, a group of students at Harvard, the second best university in the world (and the richest), and how they are trying to influence their institution to stop investing in fossil fuel companies.

I hadn’t seen coverage of this before today – a quick Google shows that this is the only UK-based story on this at present. This might be because the tactics going on up to now were fairly ‘typical’, including a sit in at the President’s office, an open letter signed by over 200 Harvard academics and social media presence to tell the world about these actions and drum up support:

The article gives us the text from a Harvard spokesman’s statement on the sit-ins that happened last week:

We are deeply disappointed that divestment advocates have chosen to resort to a disruptive building occupation as a means to advance their view. Such tactics cross the line from persuasion to disrespectful and coercive interference with the activities of others.

This clearly displays Harvard’s position on what is a ‘standard’ student campaign tactic, a sit-in. Well, Harvard, hold onto those hats (mortarboards?!), because in addition to the ‘standard’ tactics a student campaign might use, the Coalition are also – unusually – taking the university to court in an attempt to compel it to cease investing in industry responsible for climate change.

On their website, the campaigners give more information about Harvard Climate Justice Coalition v. Harvard:

we allege that the Corporation’s funding of global warming harms its students and future generations, and that Harvard’s leaders have a duty to divest the university’s endowment from the reckless activities of the oil, gas, and coal industries.

Legal challenges can sometimes be a useful tactic for campaigning groups, for example Disabled Rights UK assisting disabled people to take discrimination cases to court with the help of solicitors, or Just For Kids Law. However legal action can become too expensive for vulnerable groups without significant financial support, and legislative change isn’t going to be suitable for all types of campaigns (e.g. most of those focusing on individual behaviour change).

In the Harvard case, the students aren’t using lawyers, but instead bringing the case themselves. Some of them are law students, so may have some knowledge needed to fight the case, but they are up against a hugely powerful organisation that is almost a byword for legal prowess. With the case costing $3000 to bring, they are financing their action via crowdfunding.

The Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, to me, look like a David to Harvard’s Goliath here, which might be where I imagine they will be able to create interest within new groups. It’s a slightly unusual, very public, high-stakes tactic with a well-known story, and this should create some great news hooks. It will be interesting to see what happens in the Suffolk County Courthouse come Friday, and if/how it is reported.



Happy New Year!

This blog was originally for assessment in my MA Media, Campaigning and Social Change module: Critical Issues in Campaigning.

This module is now finished, but I am going to try and continue blogging on my two Semester 2 modules. Check back for my reflections on Media, Activism and Politics and Planning Campaign Communications!

Creating consensus on food poverty

On Monday, the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry (APPI) into Hunger in Britain published their report, “Feeding Britain”. This focused media attention once again onto the issue of UK food poverty.

The report is interesting in the context of my recent study topics as it provides a credible basis to the stories that are told about food poverty. It also provides a counter to the dominant frame that the poor are ‘feckless’ or ‘scroungers’ – the report blames benefit delays, low pay, high utility costs and many other outside factors for hunger.


Chris Mould, Chairman of the Trussell Trust, widely regarded as the leading UK food bank charity, has written a blogpost on the publication. He talks of the narrative of food poverty – making the point that this report, worked on across political divisions, finally confirms that the narrative of UK hunger is real. This report could be an example of mobilising consensus – creating agreement over issues rather than encouraging participation [1].

There have been plenty of examples of storytelling in the media and by campaigning groups around food poverty, which can create consensus on how real the problem is by highlighting individual stories. They also frame subjects as appropriate for sympathy and inspire empathy: “that could be me”:



Oxfam GB also use such stories to mobilise action – encouraging people to donate and join their #clearaplate campaign: www.oxfam.org.uk/what-we-do/issues-we-work-on/poverty-in-the-uk.

Back in April, the Daily Mail attempted to reinforce the framing of the poor as ‘scroungers’ in line with the dominant government framing, sending a journalist to a foodbank:


This story was considered by many to be mean-spirited and following a Twitter backlash was actually credited with increasing donations to the Trussell Trust – so possibly backfired and strengthened belief in the poor as needing support.

The above ‘microplay’, “Britain isn’t Eating“, by the Guardian and the Royal Court is powerful in consensus-building as it shows how the Tory frame falls apart when scrutinised practically. It illustrates through drama the idea that the stories of the poor as deserving of sympathy don’t resonate with Tory MPs – she exclaims in disbelief that there is no gas, for example.

Jack Monroe rose to fame through her budget food blog A Girl Called Jack. In an article about giving evidence for the report, she talks of the expectation of the public: “I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me my poverty wasn’t real enough, or long enough, or whatever their particular factors deem to be poor enough” – not fitting with their ‘schemas’ or expectations of genuinely poor people [2].


We know from research such as the NEF’s report on The Austerity Story that facts are ignored if they don’t fit with the dominant frame. Anecdotes alone may not be trusted, particularly if they don’t fit the dominant framing of an issue – in Jack’s case, perhaps the dominant frame of the poor as ‘undeserving shirkers’ was too strong for these people to accept her as genuine? Or perhaps The Austerity Story is so strong that people feel that it should be painful?

 Resonance = Credibility + Salience [3]

“Feeding Britain” arguably has a high level of credibility as it is within political structures, cross-party, and the result of an inquiry. The messengers are legitimate political figures. Salience with people’s everyday lives can and has been created by storytelling as seen above, but the difference now is the credibility these stories have.

Perhaps now the plight of those in food poverty will gain more resonance in public discourse, leading to greater mobilisation of actors trying to eradicate it.


  1. Klandermans, 1984, cited by Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow in Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26 (2000), p615
  2. Tannen & Wallat, 1993, p60 cited by Benford and Snow, 2000, p614
  3. Benford and Snow, 2000, p620



No porn protests please, we’re British

I saw a few articles this weekend about a protest against changes the Government has made to porn regulations in the UK and wanted to jot down my thoughts on it. It seems to be a good case study for a number of the themes I’ve explored on the MA Media, Campaigning and Social Change course so far:

– protests don’t tend to get much coverage in the media at the moment (see my media bias blogpost for more analysis on why this might be) – so why was this one? Was it the unusual nature of it? Sit-ins are part of the ‘regular’ campaign lexicon, but I’ve never seen a face-sitting protest before! As it turns out, I shouldn’t have doubted the media in this case – some reports stated they outnumbered protesters four to one. I suppose sex, like conflict, sells. This is a strength of the campaign at the moment, but I’m unsure if it will continue to be…

– thinking about framing: in the context of British public life, which is often considered prudish and uncomfortable with sexuality, I’m not sure what kind of framing or storytelling this kind of campaign could use, while remaining ‘acceptable’ to the general public. It seemed to be playing on a humourous or “shock-value” angle (or at least that’s how the media were presenting it), but the participants/organisers also talked about core issues of government censorship, personal freedom, consumer choice, supporting British industry and moralising by the state. These are all things that could appeal to motivational values as discussed by Chris Rose [1], and so inspire support, without even mentioning porn.

ethics of campaigning was brought back into focus. As with campaigns involving bare bodies and fake blood for PETA, or pictures of graphic war injuries, would a protest like this be deemed offensive, particularly to families or tourists visiting Westminster? I am sure this would have been considered and I would imagine they felt, as I do, that sometimes offending the public is a necessary step. In this case it could even have been the aim of the protest in ensuring that it was talked about. However, deliberate offence could discourage people from participating or even engaging with the protest.

– leading on from this, the group of protesters used costume and the names they gave to the media to create a strong collective identity. I wonder if the current approach could alienate potential members of this collective, as it’s current identity relies on stories of perceived deviance and behaviour at odds with what might be considered ‘decent’ by the general public? This links with Polletta’s analysis on collectivism through storytelling [2].

– I wonder, if this campaign continues, whether this group will continue to use such visible methods or move to looking at lower-profile tactics involving legal work or direct engagement with power-holders? Particularly as there is bound to be some backlash against such bold and different action.

This campaign will be interesting to follow and hopefully revisit, as it places core societal values alongside non-mainstream actions and it’s framing is not as straightforward as some other campaigns I’ve seen due to this. I also think depending on how it develops, the media response could be entertaining – particularly in more traditional outlets such as the “stiff upper lip” BBC. I’ll also be looking out for the response of power-holders: will they be able to ignore this kind of action?

I’d be interested to hear other people’s take on this one too – is it’s unusual and sensational topic a strength or a weakness do you think? Will the media lose interest if they continue with similar actions or is this their only hope for coverage?


1. Rose, C. (2010), “How to Win Campaigns”, 2nd Ed, Routledge, p71

2. Polletta, F. (1998), “Contending Stories: Narrative in Social Movements”, Qualitative Sociology, 21:4, pp. 419-446

Target practice

When planning any campaign, it is vital that the right targets of action are identified. As Chris Rose sets out, “the appropriate target is usually the one with the greatest direct culpability and capacity to act” [1].

The target will be different depending on the campaign aim, or the problem to be solved. For example, we might target:
– MPs if we want a Parliamentary vote to go a certain way;
– Heads of specific companies if their business is contributing to the problem;
– Consumers if their product choice is exacerbating an issue.

The NCVO’s Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing suggests that in order to effectively influence your target, you need to know what “makes them tick” and plan your actions with this in mind. They may already be receptive (ideally), but if they’re not, framing the issue in a way that resonates with their beliefs and values can help win them over [2].


This was illustrated for me perfectly earlier this week when I attended a campaigns workshop organised by the World Development Movement and promoted by 38 Degrees about the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The event, which aimed to equip participants in campaigning against TTIP, featured MPs and an MEP from across the political spectrum, each giving tips on how to win over their fellow politicians.

For example, Conservative MPs are ideologically in tune with the notion of free trade, so it might be difficult to persuade them that TTIP could have negative effects. However, they are keen on preserving UK sovereignty, as shown in their rhetoric on Europe, so framing TTIP as an affront to national autonomy might be a good way in.

For other political parties, the best angle for encouraging opposition to TTIP might be to focus on workers’ rights, and how they may be decimated by the agreement, or the lack of transparency in the negotiations.

Flipping this round, we see this clearly in election campaigning, where we, the voters, are the target, the aim to make us vote. Political parties jostle to frame themselves as meeting our needs and views with their policies – for example, research repeatedly shows that people are concerned about the NHS, so this is becoming a key election issue over which May 2015 will be fought.


1. Rose, C. (2010), “How to Win Campaigns”, 2nd ed, Taylor and Francis, p207-8

2. Lamb, B. (2011), “Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing”, NCVO, p84-5

Anatomy of an email (call to action)

(Un)surprising fact: I sign a lot of online petitions. I’m on a lot of campaigning groups’ databases. So I get a lot of emails asking me to take action.

This week in class we looked at how campaigns use framing and storytelling in their communications to mobilise support, looking specifically at some campaigning groups’ websites.

I thought deconstructing the story and frames behind this email I received would make for an interesting blogpost. It’s from the organisation Sum of Us, trying to mobilise me to sign a petition asking an energy company, Vattenfall, to drop their lawsuit against Germany:

[the email I received, my personal info redacted – PDF at Sum of Us – Vattenfall]


Polletta [1] explains how literary conventions are used in campaigning communications and how powerful these can be psychologically to mobilise people:

  • Protagonist:

Here it is Germany, which is framed as a ‘goodie’ – the email describes their action on nuclear power as “a win for the planet, the people and our children”.  It is also implied that all of us could become the protagonists of this story, giving even non-Germans a stake in the issue. Democracy itself is also presented as the ‘ideal’ that could be corrupted.

  • Antagonist:

Vattenfall, and other energy companies, who are creating the problem are pitched directly against Germany, and the people. Nuclear energy and the courts involved are also cast negatively.

  • Plot:

We get a tale of the background of Germany’s decision, and what it has led to. The email tells us that Germany’s positive environmental action has led to a lawsuit, and that this endangers all of us.

We previously met somebody from another e-campaigning organisation who described these kind of emails as presenting a “crisitunity”(crisis/opportunity). The pitching of a really clear story in this email involving ‘crisis’ and the opportunity we can take to resolve it illustrates this. It’s hard not to want to help avert a catastrophe when it’s presented in this way.


A number of specific frames are often used in campaign communications. These are discussed by Benford and Snow [2]:

  • Diagnostic framing

Specific issue: the problem is resolutely Vattenfall. It’s them who are pursuing this case. The email also mentions RWE and Eon but the subject line is “Vattenfall”.

Broader issues: in addition, “the game is rigged” – the legal system they are using is set up to favour businesses. And it’s secret. This creates a strong frame of injustice.

  • Prognostic framing

This is about what can be done, and often displays the theory of change used by the particular actor trying to mobilise us. Here, Sum of Us say that by signing a petition we can pressurise Vattenfall to drop their lawsuit. They link the ask and the projected result through the action framing (see below).

  • Action framing

In this email, Sum of Us ask us to sign a petition at three separate points, in a slightly different way each time:

“Sign the petition!” // “Call on Vattenfall to drop the lawsuit against Germany!” // “Call on Vattenfall to stop suing Germany over nuclear phase-out!”

The exclamations here turn the requests into demands and give a sense of urgency to them. The use of language throughout is emotive: “whopping 4.7 billion Euros”, “massive repercussions”, “tragedy…catastrophe”. In addition a collective is implied through the use of “we” and “our children” and the note thanking us at the end.

Van Stekelenburg and Klandermans have described perception of efficacy as being part of the reason people engage in protest. Sum of Us point out that Vattenfall “can’t afford to lose any more customers right now” as it is not performing well, implying that any action taken by supporters of this action is likely to be successful “if we stand together”.

I can see conventions like the above used in so many of the e-campaign emails I get. They are used so widely I wonder whether recipients might get story fatigue and tune out?

1. Francesca Polletta (1998), “Contending Stories: Narrative in Social Movements”, Qualitative Sociology, 21:4, pp. 419-446

2. Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow (2000), “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment”, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26, pp. 611-639

3. Jacquelien van Stekelenburg and Bert Klandermans (2010), “The social psychology of protest”, Sociopedia.ica, p3




I wanted to delve a bit more into the analysis of the clicktivism/slacktivism concept, as I mentioned it in my post about 38 Degrees but almost just accepted it as successful campaigning action that should be emulated. While this is close to my personal view, there’s a lot of comment and literature on this concept and it’s merits and limitations. I won’t pretend this blog can cover all of the theorising on clicktivism, but hopefully it will give a bit more of an insight into some of the discourse.

This article and especially the comments below the line show the level of public debate raging on this issue. Brie Rogers Lowery, UK director of Change.org, describes the internet as having created the “biggest citizen megaphones ever”. I agree – the potential reach of the internet is huge; much bigger than a stall or public meeting. We increasingly live our lives digitally: using social media to maintain our relationships and apps exist for everything, so surely natural progression dictates that campaigning too will become digital?

Academically speaking, June 2014’s volume of the journal Politics and Internet contained a number of articles relevant to the clicktivism/slacktivism concept. One of these, Max Halupka’s article “Clicktivism: A Systematic Heuristic” [1] makes the point that academically, “clicktivism” is viewed in derogatory terms for the following reasons, which I’m going to try and counter:

– it’s ineffective

We don’t know for sure that it is effective, as there is a lack of empirical evidence on the causes of such change [2], but there are lots of examples of efficacy in specific-issue campaigns, such as 38 Degrees’ forests petition which I previously mentioned, or the Tanzanian Masai gaining land security after Avaaz’s international efforts which involved 1.7m participants.

– it contributes further to political disengagement

I would suggest that this criticism is dependent on not viewing e-campaigning itself as political engagement. While engagement with ‘formal’ politics (voting, membership of parties) is suggested to be in decline, the numbers getting involved with actions online are huge – nearly 18m actions taken via 38 Degrees, for example.

There is an argument that simple, online action such as clicking ‘Like’ “displaces” bigger, more worthy action elsewhere. David Babbs, CEO of 38 Degrees states in the Guardian article linked above:

“That critique is dangerously elitist – as if you have to earn your stripes as an activist. If you believe in democracy, surely the easier it is to participate in the better. That’s the power of the internet.”

– it’s driven by a desire for self-satisfaction/smugness

I imagine the same charge could be levied at real-life marchers and petitioners. Even if it is self-satisfying, does this make online action worthless? Surely feeling good about oneself is a happy by-product of taking action?

– it’s too easy: change should be hard!

Why should change be hard? The whole point of my previous article was that it should not be difficult to engage politically. Online activism arguably takes away some barriers to mobilisation – e.g. physical distances between actors, availability of information, ability to send communications etc, which can only be a good thing in encouraging engagement.

– it’s impulsive/spontaneous and non-committal

In “New Media, New Civics?” [3] Ethan Zuckerman presents “axes of participatory civics”: thick/thin participation, to achieve voice/instrumental change.

Zuckerman's "axes of participatory civics", in [3], p159

Zuckerman’s “axes of participatory civics”, in [3], p159

The participation axis is a continuum between derided “thin” actions (don’t require thought – participants just have to ‘turn up’: things like clicking ‘like’, online petitions, sharing items or changing a profile picture) and “thick” actions (involving the planning of the campaign and developing the theory of change), which are thought of as more legitimate.

The objectives axis is divided into “voice” – an expression of dissatisfaction, and “instrumental”, which include a clear aim such as a law to pass or block. While some might discredit the “voice” strand as pointless, Zuckerman cites the work of economist Hirschmann in 1970 stating that by using voice engagement, activists can set agendas, collectivise and, as I personally believe, act as a first step for people to become more deeply involved.

Campaigning should encompass diverse tactics and people, and Zuckerman’s axis illustrates this for me. We can’t all start planning occupations; for some of us signing a petition is as risky as we are willing or able to get, and being involved in this way is surely better than doing nothing.

Halupka describes online campaigning is a “legitimate political act” [1] throughout his article. Zuckerman suggests that in future, it will be the expected norm that activism will be hybrid in its approach, using both online and more traditional offline tactics.

I certainly hope so – I feel that the debate over online action overshadows some of its success. People often seem unwilling to embrace change – but really all that’s changing is the medium: tactics, such as clever framing, storytelling etc are still being used. Changing a profile picture might equate to pre-social media bumper stickers or badges, and online petitions to paper ones!




  1. Halupka, M., “Clicktivism: A Systematic Heuristic” in Policy and Internet, Volume 6, Issue 2, pages 115-132, June 2014
  2. Freelon, D., “Online Civic Activism: Where Does It Fit?” in Policy and Internet, Volume 6, Issue 2, pages 192–198, June 2014
  3. Zuckerman, M., “New Media, New Civics?” in Policy and Internet, Volume 6, Issue 2, pages 151-168