I haven’t worked with them and don’t support their methods but I am convinced there’s much to learn and some things to admire about the Insulate Britain communications and media strategy.
I have to say I’m glad I don’t live in any of the areas where they are currently protesting and certainly wouldn’t appreciate having my life and work disrupted by their tactics. I don’t think anyone should break the law and cause serious disruption to ordinary people’s lives just to make their point. This isn’t a comment on or endorsement of what they’re doing, but as a media relations consultant, I do think there’s a few points worth discussing which others may be able to learn from.
- The name of the organisation is simple and sums up the whole mission in just two words. ‘Insulate Britain’ – they could have gone for ‘The Campaign For State Funded Home Insultation’. Or a clumsy acronym ‘CSFHI’ (pron. Ca-si-fe’. Instead we have a plain and simple name, which includes a powerful demand. We’ve seen a few examples of this recently – ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Defund The Police’ are other powerful campaign names. All of these are stronger names, in my view, than both ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’.
2. They have simple, clear demands. What does ‘Insulate Britain’ actually want? Only 2 things. Commitment on insulation of social housing by 2025, and a national plan to fully fund the retrofitting of every home in Britain to meet low carbon standards by 2030. Other campaigns have too many demands, fighting battles on too many fronts and can’t quickly communicate the point of their existence. Insulate Britain can. A 10 year old could grasp it.
3. It’s difficult to argue with what they want. For the government to meet its net zero targets by the deadlines set, it probably will have to do at least some of what Insulate Britain is calling for. So while their tactics might be illegal/unorthodox/extreme/downright annoying – the underlying demands seem acceptable to many.
4. They back up their demands with science. Their website includes some key quotes from prominent experts, including, crucially, people outside the world of politics and not your stereotype ‘green’ activists.
5. Simple calls to action. You can donate to their cause if you wish but what’s more prominent is the website encouraging visitors to sign a petition putting pressure on the government, or take the opportunity to join regular Zoom sessions to find out more about their campaign. The lesson here is to always give people who are interested in what you’re doing, something fairly low committal than they can follow up with and do next. Some campaigns I’ve seen struggle to even get ‘Join Our Mailing List’ working properly. Backing up a mass media attention seeking campaign with regular, perhaps regional group Zoom calls is a nice way to take control of the narrative and further build support.
6. And this is where their use of the mass media comes in. Cause just enough of a stir to whip the media into a frenzy and you’re guaranteed attention. Transform this attention into a social media viral sensation by, for example, storming off an interview, saying something apparently contradictory, or appear on a programme hosted by a presenter who might just say something utterly inexplicable and one isolated piece of action can end up reaching tens of millions and dominating the news agenda. You only need MailOnline and then the TalkRadio’s and LBCs of the world will follow along. It works with or without BBC coverage, which is fascinating. Insulate Britain uses the mainstream media extremely well. Their points are so simple to get across their spokespeople can do so but the nature of their direct action and disruption they cause means they hardly ever get a fair crack at putting their points across. They are always interrupted and journalists come at them from the starting point of ‘why are you doing this?’ and putting then under pressure to justify themselves. This plays straight into Insulate Britain’s hands because it can lead to arguments, dramas such as a spokesperson storming out, or Mike Graham claiming you can grow concrete. This trends on social media, leading more people to become curious in what’s going on, leading them back to the Insulate Britain website where they conclude that while the disruption all seems unfair and unnecessary, what they actually want seems fair enough and perhaps it’s worth joining that Zoom call. They are, well and truly using the media and using it extremely well.
7. Always play the underdog. You’re unlikely ever to find a picture of Insulate Britain all out en mass. The picture they paint is one of small groups of ordinary people, of all ages, ignored by government, trying to do something to save our planet and prevent instances of far greater disruption in future. One of the most powerful sections of their website is where they share the letter they sent to the UK government, followed by the reply they received. If I worked in the government communications department I’d be immediately revising that response, and doing whatever I could to have what’s there just now replaced with the updated version. I see this regularly where a campaign group tries to engage democratically and receives such a cold, distant, lazy, automated response that they can insist they’ve been forced into taking direct action. Of course, there’s always a reason for the lazy response – government comms teams will find a way to justify almost anything – I’d say if you find yourself agreeing with it, it’s a sure sign you’ve spent far too long working for the public sector and are now institutionalised. Get help now.
8. If you’re going to pick a fight, pick a fight you can’t lose. Ultimately, Insulate Britain will get at least a version of what they want. The course has been set. The government is only going to become more involved in the energy efficiency of our homes, because they’re committed to achieving targets which revolve around it. There’s only going to be more awareness, more funding, more support to help. No-one at 10 Downing Street will ever admit it, but Insulate Britain’s campaign has succeeded in putting the country’s abysmal record on home insulation, the number of people living in fuel poverty and the relationship between governments and home builders high up the news agenda. They’ll be able to claim credit for anything that happens as a result.
And so what are the lessons for the government or anyone else who finds themselves facing a campaign such as this?
- Don’t get so caught up in taking on an adversary that you lose sight of what it is they actually want. Maybe you’re going to have to do it anyway. Maybe it’s not so bad. Instagram saw the threat from TikTok and adopted many of TikTok’s ideas into their own app. It seems to have worked. A good idea is a good idea. Insulating homes seems like a good idea to most people.
- Take immediate action if your communications response is lacking. That automated email from the government on the website doesn’t just give Insulate Britain a boost in this campaign, it risks alienating anyone and everyone who sees it. Where is the friendly, accessible, reasonable, UK government face of net zero? If I think Insulate Britain are an extreme bunch of eco-zealots, who is it in the UK government that can convince me I’m right and there’s a better route? Give me a viable alternative and explain it to me.
- Realise you can’t set a target without a viable plan to get there. Organisations are good at making commitments. Delivering on them? Not so much. We need a plan. If there isn’t one, you create a space which all sorts of other interested groups will gladly fill and cause you nothing but trouble. The UK government knows almost everything it says about ‘net zero’ leaves more unanswered questions. They need to get better at anticipating what’s likely to happen and treat audiences and stakeholders with more respect. The number of hugely delayed policy statements and strategy announcements is ridiculous.