The Director of Campaigns at The Humane League (THL) spoke with ACE Researcher Toni Adleberg on June 30, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
The Use of Protests at THL
Protests have been a growing component of our work towards corporate campaigns and welfare reform. When I first started at THL three years ago, our campaign and grassroots teams were very small, and we only occasionally did very small protests. Although they were useful, we did not have the capacity to do them regularly. As we drew in more funding for our campaigns, took on more staff, and made a strategic decision to use our grassroots force to push for institutional change, the number of protests has grown. Since January 2017 we have organized around five or six protests every month—approximately one in every city where we operate.
THL’s Protest Strategy
We begin our campaigns by telling the company the tactics we plan to use, and always include on-the-ground actions in that email. Following through on that—and showing the company that we have the resources to organize protests across the country—is really important.
It’s scary for companies to see that we can organize on the ground. A lot of other components of corporate campaigns are done online, so it can be really effective to have photos of 20 people standing outside their location educating consumers, getting people to literally turn away.
Our protests are completely silent. We aim for professionalism, with business-like protesters and well-aligned signs. This makes for really great photos, and is more appealing to reporters. We have considered using a megaphone or chanting to make the protests more powerful and more annoying, but it has never seemed like the right strategy for the types of campaigns we run.
About half of the signs are generic and reflect our 88% campaign. The other half are specific to the protest target. There is usually one designated leader (either a grassroots Director or a superstar volunteer) to talk to the management and reporters.
THL recently experimented with organizing ongoing protests rather than one-off events, and it went really well. We had staff and supporters stand outside the target every day for two weeks straight. Volunteers happily signed up for shifts and the managers seemed annoyed by their presence. We plan to roll out this protest strategy in D.C. soon too.
Protests are most effective when used in conjunction with other tactics. If there is a protest going on, we drive dozens or hundreds of calls to that location, drop off petition signatures, and leaflet on the days before and after the protest. We also ask people to cancel their reservations and we ask customers who decide not to go in because of the protest to talk to the manager. We try to make each protest into a week-long event.
What factors contribute to a successful protest?
Applying strategy is key. We try to choose the location and timing as strategically as possible. In many cases there are dozens of locations that our grassroots Directors can target, but we make sure to visit all of them first or look at them on Google Maps. We also use Google reviews to try to determine when the busiest times are for specific locations.
Combining protests with other tactics really elevates their success. It is really important that the person/people organizing the protests receive training. We learned over time that volunteers respond better when the lead person understands the issue, is a strong leader in the community, and can answer questions and empower people—this helps to make the volunteers feel that the protest really had a big impact.
There have been certain circumstances where it just did not make sense to target a company with a protest. For example, we have gone up against companies that are only in malls, and protesting outside of a mall makes it too far removed from the target. Occasionally we protest against affiliations (e.g., a museum that has a Board Member who is also on the board of Walmart). Those have been learning experiences for us because often the public is quite confused when the target is more removed like that. For that reason we have to be strategic and think through whether protesting certain locations is the right decision—and if so, how to communicate to the public about it (what type of signs, literature, etc. to use).
We have also found that even if we had previously campaigned against a company, protesting still has about the same level of impact.
How do protests work?
We use protests to accomplish two main outcomes: scaring the company, and engaging with our supporters. Protests are a meaningful way for people to get involved, especially those who wouldn’t normally go out leafleting. The volunteers really like being part of a professional, powerful event. We often have between 15 and 20 folks, all holding signs. Every once in a while a reporter comes out, and management at the stores tend to get upset; so it’s a really exciting event for our volunteers. We also take an individual photo of everyone so they can post it on their social media. For almost every protest we have the event leader broadcast on Facebook Live about our campaign and the event to share the action with local supporters and to encourage more campaign actions. Everyone seems to really like it.
Protests are also incredibly scary for companies. When we started doing protests, it seemed that companies really reacted to them more than they would react to social media adverts or email campaigns. Part of our model is to heavily pressure local management, and hope that they will call their bosses or their media representatives. Ideally, we do that in 12 or 15 major cities, and the effects funnel up to district management and then corporate headquarters.
Examples of Successful Protests
About two years ago, we organized nationwide protests against The Cheesecake Factory to get them to go cage-free. At the time we were a smaller organization, but still managed to set up protests across the country. This was a great way to engage with our supporters and to intimidate The Cheesecake Factory by making them think we had an army on the ground. The Cheesecake Factory campaign was a very long tough battle but it eventually succeeded.
When we launched our first broiler chicken campaign against Aramark, we had 35 people come to Philadelphia from every east coast city where we have offices. The protest took up an entire block in front of the Aramark headquarters, which looked so powerful. We also combined it with other tactics including posting on social media, calling in to the headquarters, and a mobile billboard driving around the protest. Hundreds of people walking by were stopping to get literature. Aramark staff initially sent out security, then police officers, and then all of the executives came out to look. That was the first day of the campaign; I can’t think of a better way to have launched it.
We also recently won a campaign against Subway. We did several protests against them across the country, specifically targeting franchise owners. That was a really interesting model, because we learned that franchise owners were particularly sensitive to action on the ground because they have more of a vested interest in making a profit. I believe that protests bear some of the responsibility for that campaign’s success.
Another success for us was a campaign against Farm Foods in the U.K. It had been going on for about two months, but not getting anywhere. We had been having a lot of success in the U.K. with just one U.K. campaigner, Pru Elliott. One particular retailer would not concede. It became clear that in order to get their attention, we would have to organize on the ground in a region most important to the company. Pru traveled to Scotland and organized four protests—each in a different city—over two days. Only a couple of days later, we won the campaign. So it’s clear that in some cases we really needs protests to show we mean business.
How much are protests responsible for THL’s corporate successes?
It’s hard to say. We use so many different strategies in our corporate campaigns. We often win, but unfortunately it’s hard to know which tactic(s) really worked. There have been only a few cases where it was clear that the protest was the tipping point. For example, in our campaign against Farm Foods in the U.K., we won just after beginning to protest. Similarly, for our Subway campaign, we traveled all the way to the headquarters in Connecticut, did a protest, and two days later Subway released a policy.
We have seen evidence of the effects of our protests in the campaign we are currently running against Darden (the parent company of Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse). Darden sent out a memo to what we believe is their entire staff email list (possibly thousands of people). The email was all about the threat of protests from THL, how to respond to media, how to approach members of THL, and what to do if THL puts a camera in their face. It was a wildly paranoid memo, showing the pressure we put on the corporation.
In another case, we targeted an arena named after Bojangles in North Carolina, and they sent seven police officers. That seemed absurd, but Walmart has done the same thing. When the companies are very proactive in response to protests, it makes it clear that they are afraid, and our protests play a role in our success.
What resources do protests require?
Organizing protests does not take too much time. We have one campaigner who works with the grassroots staff to align on campaign strategy and tactics. Our grassroots staff has now been actively running protests in their cities since the beginning of 2017 and are fully trained on the tactic, so it’s really a smooth process overall. The grassroot Directors are now coming up with unique ways to protest in their respective cities, which has been exciting to see develop. Our National Volunteer Program has also been training volunteers in how to do protests where we do not have staff. It’s usually one campaigner, a grassroots manager, and a grassroots Director who work on this.
Because nearly everything we use in our campaigns is modular, creating protest materials and the event page communications takes virtually no time. Few things need to be changed in our materials from event to event.
One area we are still trying to improve upon is minimizing costs as much as possible. One way we have done that is by having generic posters that we are able to use for almost every protest. For a while, we were printing between 12 and 20 unique posters, but now over 50% of our posters are generic. We try to reuse all materials as much as possible. Posters are about $12 apiece on average. For each protest we make five or six unique posters. The leaflets we used to use were costing us around $1 each, which resulted in us giving out fewer of these during events. We did a lot of a research to determine a more cost-effective solution and settled on postcards. We now print postcards in bulk, which has dramatically reduced costs and allows us to distribute to many more people during our events. We have also recently purchased large, generic banners to use for our protests because they are even louder and take up even more space. Banners cost around $45, and can be used for years.