Secrets of running a lobby group in Ireland

(Forgive the DIGG like title, I couldn’t resist)

At BarCamp Waterford way back in february, I did a talk on my experiences of running a lobby group. I ran IrelandOffline for three years and this sounds very arrogant (but verified by others in private) but if it wasn’t for us, the vast majority who enjoy broadband today would not have it if it wasn’t for our constant bitching and nudging and proding and public face slapping. This is what pressure groups do though many seem to confuse think thanks with them. I also started the lobby group Digital Rights Ireland but no longer are involved with them. The following text was part of my presentation on “How to piss people off” but I have made a few little changes and added some other thoughts:

What is lobbying?

The process of trying to influence policymakers in favor of a specific cause.

Cause

First find your cause.

There are tonnes of causes that one can campaign for. I joined IrelandOffline because I saw broadband as being important for my life and the future of this country. If you want to create or join a lobby group you need to be passionate about the cause.

Create a space for them to interact.

IrelandOffline was created around some Irish newsgroups. It then also had a mailing list which was unmoderated. A forum was created on boards.ie for it too. Other private mailing lists were also created for private interactions. ComReg, DCMNR, eircom, BT and a whole host more people tuned into the IrelandOffline forum on a daily basis so private interaction spaces were also needed.

Find people who feel the same.

This is what was great about the IrelandOffline website and the forum. It brought a lot of people into the group and many became fantastic information sources after randomly find the forum after doing a Google search. Or Altavista in the day. 🙂

Exclude trolls

The IrelandOffline forum was a very busy forum to start with and there were many “characters”. Strict moderation cut down on the assholes who didn’t actually want to be constructive and just wanted attention. There are more subtler forms of troll though and you cannot afford to have them in your lobby group.

Welcome nitpickers and then exclude them

Nitpickers are great for finding holes in your plans and policies. They are also like woodworm in a lobby group if you give them control. They love finding holes and they love to argue about what holes they’ve found. Let them bug test your work but never ever give them any kind of control as they’ll just create and endless loop. Fix what can be fixed and be aware of some of the flaws in your system but move on.

Welcome Intellectuals and then exclude them

Intellectuals are a form of troll and a form of nitpicker. Listen to them, filter what they say and YOU decide. Do NOT give them control of a lobby group or nothing will get done apart from second guessing everything you do. Intellectuals are designed stop and think and repeat the loop. IrelandOffline had private mailing lists, one of which was the “Trust” list. This brain trust contained some marvelous people with great knowledge but again they hadn’t any say in the org, though they got listened to when they needed to be and got ignored when the group needed to move on. It also contained many people who could not be seen to say anything publicly because of their positions within companies.

Update: A noted lobbyist who shall remain nameless cynically suggested I change the above to:

Welcome everyone and make them always feel welcome whilst sending them on a journey to hell and back, a journey that they look forward to and will enjoy.

In all seriousness though, they said exclude people sure, fine, but never overtly.

Influence

Meet stakeholders

You should attempt to meet all the stakeholders in the area you are campaigning on. Friend or foe, it is constructive to meet them all and you can happily agree to disagree. It can bring new insight into how the other side works and why they do what they do. It can also mean you can tell everyone you have not got a chip on your shoulder, you want to see all sides and you want to be constructive. In many cases it can confirm what a bunch of cretins some groups really are.

Make politicians and civil service work

Meet with them. Ask for information. Ask for help. See what they can offer. Many meetings with a Minister can get things done if you can convince them. ComReg literally used the line “cold day in hell” when IrelandOffline asked to meet with them. After meeting with the Minister and relaying this, their attitude changed.

Create public awareness / pressure

There are many ways of influencing and one that is quite effective is creating a public campaign. Use the press, use your blog, use your forums and mailing lists to get the word out. It builds support but is also an excellent way of recruiting more passionate people. The more people that know about what you campaign for, the more you will get people willing to contribute.

Meet the stakeholders but Name not on the list?

As per the “cold day in hell” story from above. Some stakeholders might not want to meet you. In that case you give them no choice and you force them to meet you. It is amazing how easily this can be done if you generate some…

Media Attention

Press releases

Once you know the areas of your cause and what areas need addressing you should release press releases on a regular enough time frame. A lot of lobbying works on attention and maintaining attention. Even if a journalist doesn’t use your press release the first or second or third time, doesn’t mean they never will. Keep releases regular as it builds name/brand/cause recognition. Journalists are on tight deadlines so not getting coverage at first is not the end. Besides, it is good for your own organisation to send regular releases as it keeps momentum going. I won’t go into how to write releases and when and all that but I will stress that press releases are crucial for any cause.

Briefing documents

Some say it is the journalists job to educate themselves on the topic and you shouldn’t have to spell things out. Bollox. Who cares anyway? Your niche is one of dozens that a journalist covers and is not the most important thing in their world or most other peoples. Most causes are complex and need explaining. Briefing documents are a wonderful way of doing this. For IrelandOffline we’d go through a ComReg report laden with bullshit and spin and dig out the facts and nuggets and present it in ordinary language to the media. A journalist could set aside 4-5 hours figuring out the shite in the report or it might take us an hour because we know all the tricks already and have the knack for finding those nuggets. Most people are not going to spend that time when they are on a daily newscycle and by the following day, it is old news. Briefing documents are also useful for yourself as it trains you to stop thinking within the area you are in and you are an expert at and makes you communicate the ideas as if you are an outsider to it, which the majority of people are.

Never refuse a press query/opportunity

They’re not spiteful but they might not contact you again about an issue if you say no to them. Often times I was a router for them. “Nope, not my area but try ..” If you can’t do an interview, find someone that will or else go out of your way. For a cause you are fighting for you need every break you can get and maybe that one time you don’t give an interview is the time that someone influencial is listening in and could have helped change the status.

Know your journalist

Know what they write on, how they write, what way they will report on the details and what their level of knowledge is. Talk in their language and their vocabulary. Know what their news cycle is too. Ringing someone up at 5pm on a Friday evening is no good for a lot of sections in a Sunday paper. Don’t ring someone up on some topic that they have never covered. For example, some journalists will cover consumer issues but some will only cover pure tech issues. Sometimes these do not mix. Pointless selling a story to someone that will never buy it. Additionally, know the areas they cover that are not relevant to you, but if something of interest to them appears in your inbox, send it on to them. Keep them sweet if you can. Also check out what journalists want from you.

Politicians / Civil Service

Their lives are designed to preserve a status quo. They are not people who like change and they are not people who like to be told by some “outsider” how to do things. Remember many Civil Servants think they know best on matters and the plebs do not “fully” understand the situation. They think they country can best be run without some Minister and his public interfering with the situation. Many professional lobby groups are quite experienced and exceptional at getting what they want out of the civil service but for a part-time amateur bunch of ruffians I didn’t working with civil servants to be at all constructive. However previous IrelandOffline members did get them to create the very positive Group Broadband Scheme. Shame they fucked it up in the end. It is easier to get blood out of a stone than information out of some Government departments so to get around that try:

Freedom of information

Freedom of information or how to utterly fuck over a Govt organisation, in my view.

FOI gathers information though thanks to previous Fianna Fáil governments it does it in a more and more limited way. It can still allow you to find information that would otherwise have not been disclosed. FOI like some much civil service procedures is wrapped in red tape but this can be good. When you request information on a topic, the person in charge of that topic is assigned by the FOI person to get it. They also have to get it in 20 working days and present it in a certain way. They also have to censor the information to prevent any personal or commercially sensitive information being released. This can take up a lot of the persons time in those 20 working days. If there are numerous requests and numerous large requests you can actually slow down an organisation.

FOI is disruptive in that sense. If a Department is not playing ball. FOI can twist their arm a bit to start playing ball again.

Building support in public

Rallying the troops, using them to educate you, educating them so they in turn educate others, is very important to keep momentum going. A public discussion forum also means the cranks can keep a lazy group on their toes.

Interaction space(s)

Mailing lists, blogs and discussion forums are quite good for a group. They can also keep you grounded. They are also a good measure by the other stakeholders to see how pissed off a group is or how happy they are. They are also fantastic for spreading disinformation for those that are into spin and go off and work on something to counter what they think you are going to do.

Let a community build around the space

Discussion forums when set up right do not need your constant attention. Whole communities and groups can be set up around a discussion forum and people start helping each other out and also start being the ones to deconstruct reports and so forth for you, without even asking. Fights, dramas and slagging can also be better than Coronation Street at times.

Guide the community

Once you have the community in place you can use them to help you on matters and have them phone in and email their comments (their own, not yours) to the media about certain matters. It is good to see them reacting to newspapers and radio shows and making you feel you have the support when you do go on to a radio show. They also prove to a station or the press that people do give a damn about the cause you are lobbying for.

Summary

So there you have it. Just to note that every single point I made can be refuted by others and proved to be wrong, just like every experience people have on any topic. The above though has worked for me and it has worked for other groups I help and have helped in the past. I’m sure there are other ways of doing these things but this is how I do it. One last thing. Once you get your game going and you are up to speed on your topic, two to three people can run a whole lobby group campaign though the burn-out rate is quite high.

Happy lobbying.

10 Responses to “Secrets of running a lobby group in Ireland”

  1. liam noonan says:

    Very interesting read Damien. Your article clearly indicates that its not enough to wave a few posters and do the odd march so as to get something changed/done.

    Liam

  2. Niall OK says:

    Interesting read indeed – should show some people just how much you had to do… and is a comprehensive guide to anyone wanting to do something similar… great post! well written!

  3. Terrific post. I was late into your talk in Waterford (sorry for shuffling a seat 😉 so this is an excellent resource. Bookmarked.

  4. Omaniblog says:

    Fantastic. Just found it. Excellent post. I’ll keep this one on hand to remind me. It doesn’t matter if another lobbyist takes a different point of view, your individual statement of your experience is marvellous.

    I’d love to see a few other lobbyists lay out their experience in a similiar way.

    Thanks Damien

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  6. paul says:

    Great read Damien ! You should check out “Thank you for Smoking” too, it’s a great film about lobbying for the tobacco industry.

  7. Ciarán says:

    Interesting post Damien. One thing you imply here (beware nit-pickers and brainy worriers; get those press releases out; act as a contact point or conduit for journalists etc) is that a good amateur lobby organisation needs an enlightened despot at the helm.

    I take it you’re of the opinion (and I’d probably agree) that without someone at the core of an organisation deciding on goals, tactics etc, things tend to fall apart. They need to be sufficiently flexible to keep a diverse group involved but they definitively have to be in charge. Or am I misreading between the lines?

  8. I can't believe it says:

    great post, really useful information

  9. […] Thanks for visiting – Damien.I’ve already written some stuff on the media, including how to build relations with the press when running a lobby group, where to make contacts and how not to piss off journalists. I’ll […]

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