Dorothy Crenshaw November 17, 2011 | 06:19:15
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PR Lessons From Occupy Wall Street

Today is the National Day of Action, and the media noise around the Occupy Wall Street movement is louder than it’s been since the start. The mood around here is mostly business as usual, flavored with a little anxiety and mild distraction.

But, is OWS a PR success? Many have criticized its lack of coherent message, and the absence of specific demands or conventional leadership. Others point to the bad apples, like the guy who threatened violence. Regular working people resent the movement’s threats to tie up subway stops. CNN’s Erin Burnett famously wondered if it’s just a bunch of slackers with time on their hands.  Even Jon Stewart mostly mocks it.

But despite not playing by the PR rulebook. I’d call OWS a PR home run. Here’s how I think it has succeeded.

It’s on-message. Sure, the demands aren’t specific (or even practical in some cases), but the overall message is clear and consistent. “We are the 99%” says it. It’s about inequality, the decline of the middle class, and the loss of dreams and privileges once considered basic for most Americans.

It’s focused on the human story. The mom pleading for a judge’s leniency in the face of foreclosure. The unemployed students with advanced degrees and six-figure loans to pay. The retired Philadelphia police captain who offered himself to be arrested while chiding the NYPD. These are just a few of the “real-people” narratives that OWS has brought to life.

It defines its opponents. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg just may have played into the movement’s hands when he ordered the evacuation of Zuccotti Park, – in the middle of the night, presumably to avoid major media coverage.

It has attracted allies and advocates. A real turning point for the OWS movement was the endorsement of organized labor. This is big. And so are the lesser-known stakeholders, like the City Council member arrested at the protest, and the journalists claiming police interference with newsgathering.

It has entered the public bloodstream. OWS hasn’t articulated a roadmap to prosperity, endorsed a political candidate, or drafted a platform. But they’ve changed the conversation. That’s where I think the OWS participants have succeeded beyond the media and punditsphere’s expectations, and maybe even beyond their own.

6 thoughts on “PR Lessons From Occupy Wall Street

  1. First, from another blog, differences of opinion are not automatically political differences.
    Second, “they changed the conversation”, from what to what? Most of the conversation about OWS is about their actions, not about heir message. The conversation can change without PR, the Penn State situation changed the conversation but PR had nothing to do it with it.
    Third, one good measure of effective PR by a movement, is public support. Public Policy Polling last month found 35% support for OWS and 36% oppose. Last week they repeated the poll and found 33% support and 45% oppose. That is a failure of PR by any criteria. Effective PR builds support, OWS has lost support.
    Fourth, the human face was around long before OWS. Plenty of stories about foreclosures and the people affected by them.
    Fifth, if Mayor Bloomberg is the opponent that detracts from the message. Am I to think the mayor of NY is the main culprit in the economic problems we face? Wrong opponent.

    1. Hi, Joe, I don’t know that an evaluation of the PR success of OWS is necessarily driven by political views, but I do think they can influence perception….and mine might, though I try to be objective.
      Re ‘changing the conversation’ I posit that awareness of the “wealth gap” here in the U.S. has been greatly heightened by the OWS movement, which puts pressure on the key policy issue of taxation. Is it a new issue? Of course not, but I do think there’s been an increased emphasis on it, and if so, that’s a major communications success.
      As for public support, I don’t know that 60 days is enough to show a strong trend line, but I’d wager that there’s been an increase in support for raising the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans, which it seems is a seminal issue here. And, I think the images of those “99%”-ers were very resonant. The OWS movement connected the dots and positioned those hard luck stories, along with plenty that were divorced from the mortgage crisis, under the umbrella of economic inequality. So, I guess my view is that, although OWS as a movement remains controversial, the “99%” message is definitely in the bloodstream. And I imagine it’s here to stay.
      As for Bloomberg, I’m not saying I think he’s an opponent; rather, that the OWS movement successfully positioned itself as the David to the city’s Goliath. And though it may not have won over any new advocates with that tactic, it strengthened the resolve of those already in the camp (so to speak.) It certainly got the media’s attention! (See Olbermann’s rant here http://ontd-political.livejournal.com/8951331.html )
      Thanks for the comments.

  2. Dorothy
    In two CNN polls support for raising taxes on the wealthy was 63% in August and 64% in a October 12 poll. That is within the sampling error so in the two months of OWS the needle has not changed. I and many others knew about the wealth gap long before OWS and living in the DC area I see no increased emphasis on it. President Obama has been talking about it since day 1.
    The actions get media attention but that is my main point, the attention is about the actions, not the message. I walk past Occupy DC on Freedom Plaza every day and there is no message, certainly 99% doesn’t appear anywhere.
    As for Olberman, barely media since he lost his MSNBC position. Not quite Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam war.

    1. Even so, Olbermann’s rant went viral within a day. It was absolutely everywhere. That’s the beauty of it. His TV audience may be miniscule, but his influence sure isn’t. Overall, I guess we’ll have to see how it all plays out!

  3. I agree with Joe that OWS itself has not necessarily increased awareness of the wealth gap, that bifurcation of society’s been fairly well known for the last five years or so. To me, the PR success of OWS is in making it clearer to the masses the principal reasons for the income gap, the fact that it’s not an accident but as has been pointed out in many books and articles NOT read by the masses, it’s the manipulation of laws and their application by the financial community that has lowered or eliminated their risk (bank bailouts-you can’t lose) while increasing the risk and the losses (jobs and houses) for the masses. That level of awareness has been honed and focused by the OWS activities IMHO.

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