How Communicators Can Use Petitions and Why They Should

All industries recycle trends. If an expert declares a style, medium or influence is dead, beware! You’ll almost always see it again several years later in a modified form. I never thought we’d use record players again, and yet here we are in 2017 collecting vinyl. I was around to see skinny (tapered) jeans and knit ties go out in the 80s, but they’re back in style.

The same holds true in communications. Many assumed the rise of email meant the demise of direct mail, but the Direct Marketing Association found otherwise. 70-80% of consumers open all their mail. 79% respond immediately to direct mail, while only 45% immediately to email. And when companies combine email and direct mail, consumers will spend 25% more.

Print advertising, also once pronounced dead, still lives. Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline, recently took out seven full-page essays (ads) in the Wall Street Journal to help shape the conversation around business travel and to make the case for his latest travel venture, Upside.

When asked why he chose such an unconventional strategy, he said, “It's not a radical approach, though. I just took a page out of the earned media playbook. When you provide articles of real value, people engage with your company. Companies do that in digital all the time: they provide thoughtful content that engages people.”

Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed that when everyone starts running in one direction it’s sometimes smart to move in another. This is not to suggest we ignore new ideas. Rather, we don’t simply dismiss old ones in their wake. Sometimes old ideas can provide tremendous value if we think and innovate. Historically, few communications methods have had more success than the petition.

In ancient and modern, western and non-western history, frustrated citizens have used petitions to make their voices heard. The form has changed and the internet has made it even easier for citizens to band together to effect change, but a petition is the action that lets people collectively talk back. In 2011, the Obama White House created the We the People petition platform. If a high enough number of people signed an online petition, the administration would usually respond. From Internet freedom, to overtime regulations, to the Syrian refugee crisis, ordinary Americans can influence the top levels of government as never before.

Such direct influence has become increasingly important in recent years. Only owned media, online-only media and search engines have seen gains in trust during the past five years, the Edelman Trust Barometer report says. Traditional media has taken a particularly hard hit: respondents in more than 80% of countries surveyed distrusted the media, and 59% said they were more likely to trust a search engine than a human editor. Petitions let organizations bypass traditional media and speak directly to a support base.

Petitions can also be helpful in a more traditional lobbying context. A CQ Roll Call report shared “do’s and don’ts” for approaching staffers. Its number one tip was to demonstrate stakeholder support.

Petitions can demonstrate that you have a diverse group of supporters. Online petition platforms like even send a personalized email to a legislator when someone signs a petition. In a corporate context, petitions can reach a CEO or president whose contact information isn’t posted online.

If you want your petition to be influential take the following into account:

  1. Make sure your petition has a concrete and specific goal. Vague wishes or emotional diatribes rarely result in action.
  2. Target your petition to the person or group that actually has power to effect the change you seek.
  3. Manage expectations. Setting petition signature goal levels too high in the beginning can stall momentum before it has a chance to build. So, start with reasonable expectations.
  4. Before or shortly after you release the petition, identify key influencers who can identify with your cause and will use their network(s) to raise awareness.
  5. Share, and ask others to share, your petition over social media. Use the petition as a call-to-action through Facebook and organization newsletters.
  6. Celebrate your successes (signature-target levels, petition success) by pitching stories to traditional earned media—radio, newspapers, TV—for an even wider reach.

Recently, I received a tongue-in-cheek petition. My colleagues banded together to urge me to move from Gchat to Slack. It worked—for them, for me and for our communication. Petitions on a larger scale can do the same: produce lasting and effective results for you, for your organization and for your communication.

David Fouse is a partner and lead strategist at Pinkston, Inc. Stay updated on all Pinkston content by following us on Twitter (@Pinkston_co).

This article originally appeared in PR News in March 2017.