The Extinction Rebellion: A great PR stunt?
For the last three days, climate change protests have taken over central London – and there’s no sign of them stopping any time soon. The Extinction Rebellion group has succeeded not only in shutting down or disrupting large parts of the capital, but also in capturing the attention of the British media. As the protest enters its fourth day, senior media consultant Lydia Willgress considers what makes a great publicity stunt – and whether the group could or should have done anything differently.
Successful PR stunts capture the attention of a variety of people; not just the usual campaigners and supporters. Extinction Rebellion’s idea – to continue to disrupt until the Government agrees to three demands – is certainly impossible to ignore. Targeting public transport such as tube services – an everyday convenience for millions – instead of something directly linked to climate change has forced a much wider group of people to take notice.
The risk for Extinction Rebellion is a backlash from members of the public. There has been a groundswell of people on social media questioning whether driving people away from public transport is helpful to the cause. A YouGov poll of more than 3,500 adults out this morning also suggested the majority of people (52%) oppose the action, compared with 36% who support it. If you drill down further into the data, however, you find something interesting; the geographical areas with the strongest support are the very ones being affected, with 40% of Londoners supporting the cause.
“As with most news subjects, photojournalism remains central to the ability of journalists to tell a story,” one picture editor tells me. “People spend time soaking up all the details in a good photograph; drama, colour, pain, and often, humour are all key ingredients to what makes a good news picture.”
Good images and video content are arguably the most important part of any stunt. They are often the most likely way brands or causes get coverage – and the protests certainly haven’t disappointed. Photographs so far have included a woman being removed from the roof of a train, protesters gluing themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s fence and groups doing yoga on Waterloo Bridge. This is a stunt that works for the Instagram era.
Stunts should, ideally, be reactive and tying into the news agenda will generally boost chances of success. While climate change hasn’t been at the top of the political agenda, television programmes such as Netflix’s Our Planet are reigniting public interest in the issue. A survey for the National Union of Students recently found concern about climate change is higher than ever amongst UK students at 91%.
Getting the timing right is critical. For a long time the country has been in the depths of Brexit chaos. Finally, we’ve reached parliamentary recess and something else needs to fill the front pages. The group certainly appears to have successfully topped the news agenda in a quiet Easter week; a number of nationals splashed on the story this morning, including The Telegraph, Metro, City A.M. and the Daily Mail, while the Times, Independent, FT and the i newspaper all have references on their front pages. Broadcast coverage has been similarly dominant; as one of the protesters, interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, said in response to being asked what they’d achieved: “It got me on here.”
With huge social media followings, celebrities can often make or break a campaign. While the group has been supported by a handful of celebrities – such as Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who was at the protest in Oxford Circus – it doesn’t appear to have attracted the big names that could have propelled it further. In fact, The Times reports this morning that “some celebrity supporters appear to be having second thoughts… Paloma Faith had cancelled plans to perform a concert for the ‘rebels’ at Marble Arch last night”. The involvement of a bigger name could perhaps take this from being a London and UK story to one that captures international attention.
Like many grassroots protests, Extinction Rebellion doesn’t appear to have an identifiable leader. This may work for activists, but it can be a challenge for communicating the message, since it’s difficult to ensure a disparate group of activists are all on the same page. The lack of a leader figure can mean there’s no obvious person to put up for media interviews – which can lead to tricky moments such as the campaign group’s co-ordinator walking out of a Sky News interview. Nevertheless, in the case of this particular stunt, a relatively clear set of asks means the absence of a frontperson isn’t necessarily a problem.
The stunt has certainly achieved immediate impact. On top of the media coverage, it has, unsurprisingly, caught the attention of politicians. Environment Secretary Michael Gove said it was “appropriate for people to make their feelings known” and added that “we’ve got the message”. A quick search on Google Trends shows interest in the group has risen exponentially, with the search “Extinction Rebellion London” up 70% in the last 30 days.
But the group hasn’t achieved its aims yet – and it feels like change is a long way away. The three demands – which include the Government committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 – have not been met.
There is a bigger question here; one that asks whether a stunt or a more developed campaign is the way forward for those seeking change? If the challenge is to raise the profile of an issue, Extinction Rebellion has certainly achieved its aim. If the objective is actually to impact policy development and secure meaningful progress, it’s doubtful this stunt alone will make a difference – not least because their asks are widely seen as impossible to deliver. What it could be is the start of something; the initial reaction to Blue Planet on single-use plastics could have been over quickly, but campaigners drew on that early momentum and built it into a longer-term, consumer-facing campaign that saw politicians racing to respond.
Sometimes a stunt is just that; in other cases it can mark a turning point. Only time will tell which it is.