The #Occupy Movement Owes Much of Its Success to PR

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Editor’s note: Global Alliance Chairman Daniel Tisch, APR, Fellow CPRS, follows up on his previous PRSAY blog post about the public relations insights from the Occupy Wall Street movement with this post on four possible futures for a movement built through successful public relations.

This week’s media stories are filled with speculation about the future of the international movement ignited by the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations in September. The question is a compelling one: has the protest movement passed its peak, or does it have a “second act?”

It’s easy to see the media’s interest in this question; the narrative of rise, setback and either downfall or comeback is a familiar one — not just in news but also in literature and film. And setbacks often involve flashpoints — such as the tragic death of a Vancouver protestor last weekend. Such incidents, along with colder weather across the northern hemisphere, will give rise to debates about whether authorities should work toward an orderly shutdown of the protests.

I recently shared some brief thoughts with Reuters about the movement’s future, and it’s a topic that bears elaboration. Here are three possible directions for Occupy Wall Street.

Option #1: Declare victory.

The movement has achieved a lot, very quickly, by influencing social, political and media discourse:

  • The term “the 99%” and the word “occupy” are now part of the vocabulary and the zeitgeist of 2011.
  • Many influential people — union leaders, celebrities, politicians, pundits and even central bankers — have attempted to understand, co-opt or be co-opted by the movement, sometimes using it as a vehicle to gain profile or momentum for their own agendas.
  • I’ll wager that we’ll see opinion surveys showing that public support for business-friendly movements such as deregulation or corporate tax cuts is lower than ever.
  • “Occupy” has become a meme. When teenagers talk about “occupying the couch,” you know you’re on to something.

When it comes to the movement’s long-term impact, the jury is still out — and will be for some time to come. Still, winding it down and declaring victory is a legitimate option.

This option is not an easy one in an officially leaderless movement. But it would be made easier if they could point to tangible, irrefutable evidence that their message will lead to some sort of action. In the words of one Canadian protester: “What we’ve accomplished is to begin the conversation of how we’re going to interact as a society.”

Option #2: Go corporate: clear organization, clear demands.

OK, I’m being a bit provocative. But it’s possible to imagine someone using the momentum from “Occupy” to create an institutional movement — perhaps even an NGO with an agenda. An example would be, which started as an email group opposing the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 and became a liberal advocacy movement with millions of members who raise millions of dollars for political candidates.

Features of this option might include:

  • Keeping the movement’s grassroots flavor by crowdsourcing its agenda;
  • Taking a political voice in the U.S. and other elections;
  • Being a watchdog highlighting allegations of corporate greed or malfeasance;
  • Courting counter-intuitive allies – e.g., the Warren Buffetts of the world; and
  • Using third-party influencers — from Michael Moore to Susan Sarandon to big unions — to drive membership, contributions, attention and activity.

Many of today’s protesters would find this option unthinkable; various attempts to unify protesters around specific demands have foundered. Still, this may be the best route to turning the movement’s early PR gains into long-term advocacy success.

Option #3: Go (or stay) radical: stay loose, but organize to drive the news.

Think Greenpeace or PETA: the focus would be on raising consciousness, but not on specific demands. Features of this option could include:

  • Orchestrating “street theater”, much the way Greenpeace pulls off eye-catching guerilla marketing stunts.
  • Staying edgy in social media, using creativity and viral video to catch eyeballs and mindshare.
  • Jumping on symbolic ‘greed’ stories in aggressive, high-profile ways to shame alleged perpetrators.

The movement’s upcoming gambit — a march to Washington, D.C. — may herald a move in this direction.

The common thread in these last two options is the need for evolution, organization and leadership that emerges from the shadows. The movement may not dominate headlines as consistently as it did in its early days, but with careful cultivation of its voice and consolidation of its supporters, there’s still a chance to continue its impact over time.

Some will say this defeats the purpose and ethos of a leaderless protest movement. That may be true; if so, the best-case scenario may be the end of the ‘physical’ occupation of public space, coupled with an afterlife for the movement as an idea — and an ideal.

Can #Occupy have a second act? Let me know your thoughts.

Daniel Tisch, APR, Fellow CPRS, is chair of the Global Alliance of Public Relations & Communication Management, the confederation of the world’s public relations industry associations. A version of this post originally ran in the Argyle Communications blog.

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Dan Tisch

1 Comment

  • I believe Occupy can have a second act. Right now there
    certainly has been a lull with it and how successful it has been. I think it’s
    upsetting that most of the stories now about it have to do with violent acts
    committed towards the nonviolent protestors. I do not think this movement is
    anywhere close to winding down at all. There is no tangible evidence of this
    protest being successful, so by declaring victory would be useless and not
    beneficial. I also do not feel that making an organization surrounding this
    issue would be beneficial either. I know that you mentioned and what
    they are doing but I do not think the Occupy Wall Street protest is ready to
    formally make an organization. There is still too much to be done and too many
    needs to be met. I realize that is doing great things, but they had
    time before forming their organization and saw results.  I think what can definitely be supported by
    public relations efforts would be to go radical. Not necessarily in the PETA
    mindset but in the Green Peace mindset. Let’s face it the moment anyone starts
    comparing them to or emulating PETA it is a bad idea. They often times are so
    controversial that their message can be lost. I think some guerrilla marketing
    stunts are exactly what this cause needs and people in public relations can
    help. By making their point clearer through stunts and big events, more people
    will pay attention and public relations professionals can definitely help with
    spreading the word. I think this is radical enough for the Occupy Protesters
    and public relations professionals can also help in spreading the word. The
    public needs to see more, the government needs to see more, the 1% needs to see
    more, in order for change and support to occur.

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