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