Case studies for me were the bane of business school, but they served a purpose. We learned about how companies like Zara and Wal-Mart mastered information technology; how Arm and Hammer (the baking powder, not the oil magnate) grew by changing its message and finding adjacencies for a simple, SIMPLE product; and that Ocean Spray grew by using tactics what today would be called guerilla marketing: they got that astringent juice on breakfast tables by pushing their product in everyone’s favorite neighborhood hangout, the bar.
The National Rifle Association is a case study for messaging success. Climate change advocates, according to Robert Walker, the former President of Handgun Control, Inc., could learn a lot from the NRA’s tactics. Walker explains that the NRA’s 3 million or so members hardly share monolithic thinking. But instead of collecting data and preaching what he describes as “scrupulously reasoned arguments” to broadcast its message, the NRA built and motivated its members, worked hard to influence elections, and carried a scorched earth campaign on its way to victories.
Many activists are wringing their hands because of the political climate in Washington, and the so-called “Climate-gate” fiasco. Al Gore sure has not helped much because he seems to have disappeared (where is he, anyway?). But maybe Gore’s silence, and the bumbling at East Anglia University and other research institutions, are not a bad thing. In the early 1990s, the NRA lost some legislative battles, most notably the passing of the Brady Bill. But the NRA just pulled up its collective shirtsleeves and got to work. They lost a battle, but one could say that in November 1994, they won the war: a 50-plus seat pendulous swing in Congress, taking the sitting Speaker of the House down as well.
Walker shares some tactics that he thinks climate change activists, green tech advocates, and really, anyone with a cause should employ. Some of our thoughts are thrown in as well:
- Bare-knuckle politics. Speech and debate ends in high school. Forget meticulously pointed arguments backed with facts. In the end, elected officials, from county board of supervisors to federally-elected representatives, want to be re-elected. Got a voice? Shout at a town hall if you want to be heard. Get an image makeover, too. Dress sharp for crying out loud!
- Make alliances. Walker and his team won in the early 1990s because they partnered with law enforcement officials. Who wants to vote against cops? Plenty of businesses believe in your cause, and have the smarts to help you get the word out. Pragmatism rules: now that the Securities and Exchange Commission is advising companies on disclosure related to risks associated with climate change, more large organizations with resources can help assist with the debate.
- Move the battle lines up. Stop talking about future generations. People are only worried about the here and now. Discuss extreme temperatures, spiking food prices, drought flooding—you name it, there are plenty of nasty side affects now!
- Sound bites rule. Many liberals—who have been cowed by conservatives to know call themselves “progressive” (sounds so corporate!), believe it’s beneath them to talk in sound bites. Well, no one wants to be lectured to—or lectured down to. Get the message, 25 words or less, out like you’re shooting them from an Uzi.
- Get even. The political process is slow. The Senate is turning into a House of Lords. Angry and frustrated because climate change legislation has not passed? Channel that anger into action. Whining about the system will not get you anywhere.
- Amp it up. The Economist was more vocal about the Climate-gate issue, rebutting assumptions, than many in the climate change crowd. That episode was no time to get silent. Got pushed? Push back, but harder!
Some may argue that we are talking apples and oranges here. Of course climate change and Second Amendment rights involve very different issues and circumstances, many of which I am sure will be pointed out below. But in order to succeed, you have to learn from the best.