I wasn’t involved in the Occupy Wall Street activities, although I followed the movement closely and admired many of its ideas and ideals. As a public relations professional, however, I was increasingly frustrated by the inability of its participants to adhere to basic PR principles. If they had, I believe they would have made a much more powerful impact on the public, and the corporate and government leaders they were trying to reach.
I have been fortunate to have implemented some successful national advocacy communications campaigns. Usually the process takes months, sometimes years, for an issue to reach a level of national or international prominence so that major media and the public take notice. For the participants and organizers of Occupy Wall Street and the other cities across the country and around the world — it took a few weeks.
Beginning Sept. 17, 2011, thanks in part to the 24/7 news cycle and social media in particular, the Occupy movement grew quickly. Initially covered by the mainstream media as an oddity or fringe movement, by Oct. 1, 2011, network TV news was reporting seriously about a national movement with demonstrations in Los Angeles, Portland, Maine, and elsewhere.
Suddenly, OWS was a major story in top-tier media and was prominent online and with social media. The phrase “We are the 99%.” quickly became a part of the public vernacular.
At that point I believe those involved had an obligation to their movement, their ideals and their supporters to use some basic PR tools and tactics. I understand this might not have been their goal but it was an unanticipated opportunity. When you have the full attention of the Huffington Post, The New York Times and all three major U.S. nightly TV newscasts, it is a game changer.
Given such major media interest, OWS needed to seize the moment. Prizing democratic principles it could have used the democratic process to hold meetings and vote on a series of issues that would have benefited from PR. A majority vote would have decided. But they failed to act.
Here are some of the basic tenets of PR 101 that the Occupy movement failed to use:
- Define short term and long term goals.
- Define key objectives.
- Define key messages.
- Define key audiences.
- Identify key spokespeople.
- Get professional media training.
- Articulate your vision — for your followers, for the media and the public.
- Define a plan of action.
If those in the Occupy movement had been able to pull themselves together and implement these core PR principles they could have moved the media coverage from discussing their physical encampments to covering substantive issues.
When they were evicted from New York’s Zuccotti Park the media coverage changed. While they have lost momentum, their ideas are still resonating in the media, the Presidential campaign and even in President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address.
According to news reports, participants in various cities are now regrouping for a new phase of larger marches and strikes. In some cities, such as Chicago and Des Moines, they are even renting office space. Last week in New York they had an “Occupy the Corporations” demonstration.
As they move into this next phase I hope OWS participants will reconsider how to use PR more productively and have a much more profound impact.
Leslie Gottlieb is an expert in strategic communications and integrated marketing and is a board member of the New York chapter of PRSA.