How to take a campaign approach to comms

This article is part of the Cast From Clay How To series for policy organisations.

"Campaign" isn’t a word you hear that often in the world of wonk comms. 

You might see a report launch with a hashtag, or a research programme with its own logo. But campaigns are for charities banging the drum for a social cause, or a big-name brand keeping their products on your radar. Aren’t they?

Thing is, we’re all banging the drum on something – think tanks, research institutes, charities alike. 

Campaigning is just about getting organised to achieve a purpose. Which is to say: a campaign approach should be a tool in all of our communications arsenals.

If you’re wanting to take a campaign approach in your policy research organisation, you’ll likely be asked, “Why would we campaign? That’s not what we do”.

But, as Alan Barnard and Chris Parker put it in the book Campaign It!, the answer is simple: 

you take a campaign approach “because there is a definite outcome to be achieved that is too important to leave to chance.”

To me, a campaign approach is perfectly encapsulated by that moment in Finding Nemo where the fish get caught in the net: they begin as individual fish, flailing around, being drawn to their doom. But when they all pull in the same direction they increase their power and escape oblivion. They couldn’t maintain this effort indefinitely (campaign-mode is not an every-day thing), but they have a really important goal to achieve within a specific timeframe, and they can only do it if they’re giving their all in one big push.

In the world of policy and research communications, this urgency and momentum will be building up to something like a key conference such as COP26 or a UN conference on your issue of interest. Or an important debate in Parliament.

To break it down a little more, here are what we’d consider some major differences between a campaign approach and a more day-to-day communications approach:

A lot of resistance to campaigning comes because people see stunts and slogans and view campaigns as fluff: Not What Serious Organisations Do.

Plus, campaigning is seen as political – which is not necessarily the case. It depends what your goal is.

The same problem comes when comms professionals get excited, have a fun idea for a visual metaphor or a punny catch-phrase and want to build a campaign around it. 

Both are seeing the campaign tactics but not the strategy. In other words: trying to make a sandwich without laying your bottom slice first:

Start with the outcome you want to achieve: everything else is secondary.

If you think your next project might benefit from a campaign approach, here are some questions you can use at each stage of planning:

If this campaign were to be considered a success, what would have changed? Who do we need ‘permission’ from to achieve our goals? Will a certain timing help us apply pressure, or incentives? Which channels are they on already? What can we say about this topic that no one else is?
Awareness? Attitudes? Behaviors? What do our audiences think/ feel about this issue, and where do we need them to be? How far can we realistically take our audiences with one campaign? What is your story? Which messages will resonate with them? Is there an ask, action or declaration that our audiences and partners can rally around?
  Who do they trust? Are there groups we can influence to influence them in turn? What follow-up activity do we need to plan after? Do we need a campaign name, visual identity, slogan or hashtag to tie all our comms together? How can we illustrate our messaging in a creative format?

Once you know what sandwich you’re making, you can get on and make it:

Define your objective(s) Map your key stakeholders, their power and influence, any leverage points Start from your climax date and work backwards Draft your campaign narrative, then define your top-level message – and then supporting messages Develop key messages into creative concepts
Identify the one idea, message
or action you would like your audience to take away from the campaign
Survey or interview target audiences for attitudes on an issue Create a roadmap, setting out how your narrative will unfold and any set dates along the way Identify which messages and content are right for which channels & audiences Refine creative concepts into creative executions: eye-catching images, memorable phrases, engaging events
  Gather your allies and partners, start engaging them – and leverage their reach and influence Refine and update your plan as things change – keep being flexible! Develop a grid of daily/weekly activity, and roll-out the narrative accordingly  

Once your foundation stones are in place, you’ll likely have a lot of creative ideas for the form the campaign will take.

The fish in Finding Nemo are led by a slogan that coordinates their intent: “Just Keep Swimming”, which rallies them to nearly sink a fishing boat.

Not so fluffy after all.

Watch Katy explain the thinking behind a campaign approach and assemble a campaign sandwich in this recorded presentation.


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