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 terms ‘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 protestor: ‘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 MoveOn.org, 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 flavour 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;
- Using third-party influencers – from Michael Moore to Susan Sarandon to big unions — to drive membership, contributions, attention and activity.
Many of today’s protestors would find this option unthinkable; various attempts to unify protestors 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.
- Orchestrating ‘street theatre’, 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.