SMK Associate India Thorogood and former Head of Campaigns at Freedom from Torture Jack Steadman* offer up five lessons from the 25 million views they received for their campaign stunt that can be applied to counter culture wars and set narratives towards the upcoming General Election.
When Suella Braverman described refugees as an “invasion”, we knew someone needed to speak out. Research shows the most effective way to counter dog-whistling is to call it out and build a sense of unity across race and class lines. But for politicians to care, we needed to get our message out beyond our base and into right-leaning mainstream media. We were working for the amazing Freedom From Torture. But it’s not news when Millennial charity workers oppose government rhetoric. It’s expected – and it could even play into Braverman’s hands. We didn’t want to give her fuel for her culture war fires. We needed to find a way to make a positive case for welcoming refugees.
That’s why we connected with Holocaust survivor Joan Salter and asked if she would confront Suella Braverman. She was a living testimony to why rules were introduced post World War II to protect refugees, making her a difficult messenger for anti-refugee politicians to dismiss. We predicted her personal experience of injustice and the special resonance of the Holocaust would get mainstream newspaper coverage. We were right. The video of Joan confronting Braverman got 25 million views on Twitter/X. It led to weeks of headlines, including in The Times, BBC News and The Telegraph. Braverman was derided by Conservative commentators. The government even threatened Freedom From Torture with legal action to take the video down. Gary Lineker appeared to be inspired by the video of Joan when he made similar comments weeks later that got him banned from Match of the Day. After quitting in solidarity, Ian Wright did the media rounds echoing our narrative: that the government demonises people who seek safety to distract from their failures, and that we must have compassion for refugees.
Here’s 5 lessons from the 25 million view campaign stunt that can be applied to counter the culture wars & set the news agenda in the General Election.
- Framing isn’t just about the message: The message you send isn’t just about the words you use. A trusted messenger like Joan can be the difference between persuading or alienating new audiences. Who says it, what they wear, what your video looks and feels like – that’s all part of the framing.
- Great stories have conflict: Whether it’s an ancient fable or a box office hit, conflict is a vital ingredient in a compelling narrative. Joan’s action worked because she was confronting Suella Braverman, not asking politely. Good campaign stunts usually need tension for ordinary people, the media and your campaign target to pay attention.
- Get creative: Don’t just stay in reactive mode. If we want our framing to be anything more than a quote at the end of an article, we need to creatively carve out our own stories. Watch for moments where the whole country will be watching and develop your own plans using creative brainstorms.
- Be authentic: Joan was an authentic messenger, but we also purposefully shot the stunt on a phone (props to Jack Williamson, Agustina Oliveri and Aaliyah Burns from Freedom from Torture for your under pressure filming skills and social media savvy). Sometimes polished campaign actions can feel too engineered and boring. Luckily that means cheaper can equal more impact. The hundreds of headlines from Joan’s interaction were created with just a few hundred quid.
- Don’t accept the culture wars: We must refuse to accept the narratives of this government. If we want people to care and vote, this election can’t be about ‘stop the boats’ or vilifying the trans community. We have to be brave enough to talk about the things that really matter to people. If an 80 something year old Holocaust survivor can challenge the narratives of right wing politicians then so can we. In the run up to an election, we haven’t got time to waste.
We work with people who’ve experienced injustice to highlight issues that really matter and hold our politicians to account. Get in touch if you’re a non-profit who’d like to collaborate or a grassroots activist who’d like our support.
Social media to win campaigns workshop dates: Tues 26th Mar 2024 10am-1pm Tues 21st May 2024 10am-1pm Wed 30th Oct 2024 2-5pm
*Jack Steadman is Campaign Director at Purpose. As Freedom from Torture’s Head of Digital & Campaigns, he oversaw the #StopTheFlights campaign that led to all airlines pulling out of the Rwanda scheme. He is a trustee with Safe Passage and Music Action International.