Mikael Roldsgaard Nielsen is the Campaigns Manager for Latin America and Brazil at Mercy For Animals (MFA). He spoke with ACE Researcher Toni Adleberg on March 20, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
Why does MFA organize protests?
These days, MFA largely uses protests for leverage in their corporate outreach work. MFA will set up a protest or demo if they’re having trouble communicating with a company, can’t get them to meet, or need to apply some additional pressure. They try to hold the protest outside a big target—such as a headquarters or flagship store. In the past they have used protests on tours, but they now tend to do one-off events.
How many protests does MFA organize per year?
The number of protests MFA organizes each year varies. Last year they organized about 10–12 protests. Nielsen joined the Corporate Outreach team in the middle of 2016, so he may have missed some protests while working on volunteer coordination. MFA is about to hold their fourth protest of 2017. They recently held a protest at Qdoba, and they have one coming up at Wendy’s.
Since protests require a lot of planning and resources, MFA doesn’t take them lightly. They hold protests in cases where they really feel it will have a huge impact or when pressure really needs to be applied in a campaign. MFA is currently focusing on organizing big one-off demos and putting a lot of effort into them, whereas in the past they put more resources into smaller demos. Tours were definitely effective in the past, but taking into account the resources that go into a tour—such as the costs of driving and accommodation—Nielsen feels it wasn’t the most effective use of resources. MFA would do a tour again under the right circumstances, but for now they’re focusing on one-off protests.
MFA’s Success with Protests
During a campaign, pressure is applied in many different ways—so it’s difficult to be certain whether a protest was the defining part of a successful campaign. Recently, there was a protest against Safeway that was part of a winning campaign on which MFA worked alongside other groups.
What factors contribute to a successful protest?
One of the main things MFA tries to do is get good media coverage. To this end, they aim to set up events to look very good visually. They use professionally printed signs rather than allowing people to bring their own signs. They also ask people to dress in business attire, and have a volunteer coordinator on the ground to make sure everyone stands straight and holds the signs at the same level. They make sure volunteers understand that it’s a silent demo and that their job is to hold the sign and look serious. They try to pick locations where the backdrop is a sign or the store itself, and where the name of the company is visible. For these reasons, a large number of volunteers and good location and background are very important factors.
Sometimes the media doesn’t turn up, and MFA is always ready to take their own video and pictures when this is the case. They send “executive update emails” to executives or upper level employees at the company they’re campaigning against so that they know what happened outside the flagship store or headquarters—even if the event doesn’t get media coverage. MFA also puts together a package for the media, which includes footage and a press release that can be copied and pasted so journalists can cover the event if they weren’t present.
Nielsen thinks that when people think of protests they probably tend to think of the more stereotypical kind with homemade signs and bullhorns—which is the style shown most prevalently in the media—rather than an MFA style protest. MFA is pretty clear about what their events are from the first email they send out, so Nielsen doesn’t think that false preconception has a significant negative impact on people who they reach out to.
MFA has found that protests are most effective when aimed at the media. There’s generally a spokesperson at each protest who will have talking points, and the volunteers serve as a visual backdrop. MFA tries to keep their message specific. At every protest they have a few key things they want to get through to the media. Coverage will often last only five or ten seconds at most, so MFA tries to minimize anything that could take away from their message. They don’t want distraction caused by someone shouting “meat is murder” or something similar.
Often the protests are in places where there’s not a lot of foot traffic. They get car honks, usually in support though sometimes not. MFA doesn’t get a huge amount of general feedback. It’s great that people see the signs walking and driving by, but that’s not the main purpose of the protests—the main point is to be a disruption to the company and get on the news. Fifty people might walk by during a protest, but thousands or tens of thousands of people will see the message if it’s on the news.
Resources Used in Protests
The resources used for protests depend on the city. In some cities a permit is necessary. MFA is currently organizing their first demo in Brazil, which is a big learning experience—the laws are different there, and they have to consult a lawyer to make sure they’re doing everything right. Sometimes there’s paperwork and sometimes they have to work with the police. A lot of coordination work has to be done by MFA’s volunteer coordinator and their education department to make sure people know about the event, are reminded about it, and come out on the day. It’s also important to make sure people feel appreciated for coming out. A spokesperson—usually an MFA staffer—will have talking points and will have had media training. MFA also prints signs and banners. Press releases are important, and MFA now has a PR firm that helps with that. They also have to ensure they have somebody to take good pictures and video. Sometimes they have great volunteers who can do that, other times they have to hire somebody, as it is such an important part of the protest.
MFA uses an email list to contact volunteers in the area where a protest is being held—Facebook has also been an incredible tool. They create a Facebook event and invite people, post in Facebook groups, and use word of mouth—which is a good way to reach friends of volunteers, and family members. Silent demos are a great way for people who want to try activism to get their feet wet and are good first demos for a lot of people.