Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Assignment 5: So you want to start an online petition?

Dr. Laccetti has graciously allowed me to tweak my assignment for our final module because I can't create an online petition without jeopardizing a fundamental value where I work: "journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue." I'm proud to work at the CBC, even though I am currently on leave, because they take impartiality seriously.

Even if the rules were not such, I take the perception of objectivity very seriously so I don’t even sign petitions. To me, there is no non-controversial issue, no cause for me to support, no petition I can sign, which won't alienate someone in my future reporting or may make it harder for me to get people to talk to me if they thought I felt a certain way. If people think I have an opinion that doesn't match theirs on any issue, they may not agree to talk to me, and if I can't talk to people on one side of an issue, that negatively impacts my ability to tell a story fairly.

When I write "the perception of objectivity," I don't mean that I am completely objective at all times, I don't believe anyone is. What I mean is that it is important to me that I be perceived to be objective. Everyone comes to the table with bias, for example my life experience and learning has changed the way I feel about issues all along the way, and as a journalist I feel it is my responsibility to be aware of my bias and correct my work to take it into account. I'm happy to discuss this position more in depth with any of my classmates if you want to get in touch outside of this blog.

Instead of creating my own, I’ve put together this post on petition best practices to help you with your campaigns, and I hope you find it useful.

I interviewed Pascal Zamprelli, a Director at Change.org Canada based in Montreal. We talked about what makes an online petition effective, and he outlined some ways to make a campaign as successful as possible. I’ve taken that conversation and distilled it into ten takeaways.

1. Post your petition on the right site:
When you are looking for a good place to post your petition, ask how a site will support your goals. Mr. Zamprelli pointed out Change.org is an open platform, which means the people who work there don’t come up with the petitions or the campaigns, but rather aim to support users in different ways. The support a site offers can mean anything from help with planning out a strategy and media relations, to adding tools which make it really easy for petitioners to post their content on social media.

You also want to make sure the site will give your petition as much, or more, credibility as is given to hard copy petitions. For example, Avaaz.org has a “commitment to accuracy,” to post corrections if the facts in a petition are wrong. Sites like Change.org and ipetitions.com outline on their site how they use technology tools to ensure each of their petition signatories is real. Zamprelli told me Change.org uses technology which looks for things like valid email addresses, postal codes matching IP and other measures to make sure people aren’t trying to "game the system." He said this is important because online petitions are working to change the status quo, and those who don’t want change will go out of their way to prove the signatures are not from real people.

“Ten fake signatures on a million signature petition will throw into doubt the million signatures.”

2. Have a specific, achievable ask.
Once you have chosen where you are going to post your petition, you need to ask yourself who do you want to petition and why?

“The petition is one of the oldest tools in advocacy, and the reason it has always worked for people is that it takes an issue of some kind and turns it into a specific and ideally achievable ask, of a specific person” Zamprelli told me. You need to think about what you are asking to change, and who may be the right person to get it done for you.

Maybe you want Amazon not to sell a book by convicted serial killer RobertPickton. A group of victims' families did that recently, and sales stopped within 48 hours, after the media and politicians weighed in.

Don't be afraid to take your ask to the top: according to Zamprelli, the Canadian Government is the most petitioned entity in Canada, and "anything that has to do with government policy, you can change. People are reinventing the way they interact with their government. People are getting more into the habit of saying to the government, they have missed something or they are wrong about something.” So choose the Prime Minister, Premier or CEO as your target, they have the power to change things, but so do you.

3. Have a good story
Throughout this course, we've been kicking around the idea that narratives online still need to be strong narratives no matter what the platform and online petitions are no different.

“You are competing against all of these other things that are out there so you need to catch people’s attention somehow in such a way that they will give you a little bit more of their time and they will read on, think about what you are doing, and decide if they want to support you” said Zamprelli.

“Having a real, visceral, emotional reason why people should support [your petition]" may be enough, but it's better if you can "take the tools you have available to you and try to put people in the shoes of the sort of people at the center of why something needs to change.”

Like this mom, who explained she wanted artificial dyes to come out of candy because she felt it directly affected her son Trenton’s health.

4. Structure is key
“If you tell your story in an appealing kind of way and you have a reasonable, achievable thing you want to do, people are going to take some time to look at it and will likely support what you are doing,” Zamprelli said. He suggested a format which includes “a grabby kind of headline, a nice image, a concise text that quickly tells people what it is about.”

He pointed to the example of a petition to stop Canada Post from cancelling home delivery:

the image that was used told the story of why it was important, and that helped garner more support for the campaign.

5. Share it widely
Find ways to distribute it and use social media tools to find all of the support you can for your ask.

“Unlike paper petition days, you are trying to talk about it, going around and knocking on doors, but you are never going to be able to cast as wide a net as you can with the web. It takes an effective tool and gives it many orders of magnitude of effectiveness by allowing you to quickly and cheaply get this information out, share it with a huge swath of people, and find all of that potential support that exists," said Zamprelli.

6. Ask yourself who influences the person who can make the change…and get their attention too
Zamprelli talked about something he calls “power mapping,” an exercise which shows all the people who can influence the person with the power. This can inform the steps in a campaign: for example, in a corporate setting, it could be targeting the shareholders or brand; in government, it's the voters.

“You look for these ways to speak to the things that matter to them, through the people that matter to them somehow, and get them to pay attention and believe that it will be better for them to do what it is you are trying to get them to do. Never mind it’s going to be better for the world in general.”

7. Use the media, at the right moment in the narrative
Sometimes, as in the Pickton case above, the petition is the start of the media story. At other times the petition is a reaction to something else in the news, like the effort to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK after he said intolerant things about Muslims. That petition led to a debate in the British House.

“Crucially, it is an important step to have your decision maker acknowledge a petition and online mobilization and start responding to your effort," said Zamprelli. Getting the person in power to acknowledge the petition, and the problem, can bring even more people on board for your campaign, and sometimes it takes the media to do that.

“If the media decides to put attention on to something, that can be and often is the trigger for the decision maker to decide that something is important enough. It may affect their votes, it may affect their brand. When the media agrees something worthy of attention, that is a huge validator of a campaign and a huge tactical win for the people trying to do it."

8. Mobilize the community after you have created it.
There can be many steps to victory in an online campaign, so make sure you update people, let them know what's going on in the story and what further steps they can take to achieve the goal.

“You might organize a twitter bomb, or a social media bomb of some type,” said Zamprelli. Look at where your change maker is active: Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest? Use the tools on the petition site for things like a "click to tweet" button, and let your supporters know what day you will be reaching out through that channel, and then let the media know too. “What the media needs to see to care is mass mobilization.”

9. "Who" can be more important than "How Many"
To get Barak Obama's attention, it takes a million signatures, but to get a town council to pay attention it may only take two hundred if all of those people are from the town. However, there may be times when it is beneficial to have International attention, like in the case of the Bring Pastor Lin Home campaign.

“It all depends on what is strategically valuable to you,” Zamprelli said. Think about who you want to support your petition and find a way to get to them wherever they are.

10. Don't give up
Merna Forster started a petition two years ago to get more women on Canadian bank notes.

The new Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, recently stated he was in favour of the idea.

It may take years, like in the case of M&Ms and artificial dye, or it may only take a few hours like with Robert Pickton, but don't give up until you get what you want.

Further Reading:
Fast Company has written an article which features an interesting global map of popular petition topic by country, and some interesting stats. If you want to check it out, it’s here:

The Canadian government recently opened up an e petition site of its own, but unlike an activist site, there are all sorts of rules making it more difficult: the need for an MP to sponsor it, and a 120 day time limit for example.

Organizations like Avaaz.org sometimes create events to go along with their petitions. You can read about their climate march here:

British Broadcasting Corporation. (2016, January 17). Donald Trump: Why are UK MPs debating whether to ban him? BBC News. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FbyWBDdXwI&feature=youtu.be

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Journalistic Standards and Practices. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/en/reporting-to-canadians/acts-and-policies/programming/journalism/opinion/

Canadian Press Video News. (2016, February 23). B.C. premier aiming to stop Robert Pickton profiting from book. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4klAbEfk5k0&feature=youtu.be

Daily Mail (Publisher). Screen capture of online petition [digital image]. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3352382/Three-people-SECOND-signing-petition-ban-Donald-Trump-Britain-hate-speech-claim-police-fear-lives-radicalised-London.html

Dixon, S. (Photographer). Photograph of man at mailbox [digital image]. Retrieved from: https://www.change.org/p/don-t-let-canada-post-end-door-to-door-delivery

Nash, P. (2013, October 29). Diversity on Canadian banknotes - NDP MP Peggy Nash asks BOC Gov why not??[Video File]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XlCOlJNJdg&feature=youtu.be

Shutters, R. (Photographer). (2013, October 10). Photograph of Trenton [digital image]. Retrieved from: https://www.change.org/p/m-m-s-candies-stop-using-artificial-dyes-linked-to-hyperactivity


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Dr. Laccetti and I have agreed this will be part one of two for my assignment five.