I remember something remarkable happening in January 2017.
Although we watched with horror as Trump took office and banned Muslim people from entering America (before he’d even learned where the loos were), thousands upon thousands of progressive Americans immediately united in opposition. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent their volunteer lawyers to the airports to defend human rights and they blocked Trump in the courts. In that one weekend after the travel ban was instituted, American people donated $24 million dollars online to the ACLU. It was electrifying.
In the years since, I’ve often wondered who would step forward to be the leaders of Britain’s progressive movements? What event or legislation would be deemed so outrageous that thousands of people would stand up and say enough is enough?
There have been ripples of action; tragedies that have sparked brief outpourings, but nothing that has turned the tide. Inspirational figures like Captain Tom have captured the public’s imagination, and public figures like Marcus Rashford have challenged government policies, but it never seems to last. Time and time again, news cycles and social timelines move on, and the briefly choppy waters appear smooth once more.
But maybe that’s changing? It feels like we’re starting to see something remarkable happening here, on and around our own shores.
It’s August 2021, and the public figureheads of the progressive movement are to be found in the most unexpected places. Those with the courage to take a stand and speak out for what they believe in aren’t the fringe organisations, usual ‘lefty liberals’ and Guardian reader favourites. Stalwart British institutions are speaking out. You know the kind, the ones my Conservative-voting grandparents supported all their lives.
When the National Trust is lamented for being in the grips of a woke agenda, whilst fighting to share our nation’s colonial heritage, they’re probably doing something worth paying attention to.
When the England football squad are making headlines for feeding our country’s children, standing up for LGBTQ+ rights, and against racism – not for their love lives and fashion choices, you can sense change in the air.
And then there’s the RNLI. The Royal National Lifeboat Institute. One of the 100 most loved things in the country according to YouGov.
Last week the Royal National Lifeboat Institute caught the attention of the former UKIP leader. As Farage and right-wing press sought to vilify the RNLI for doing exactly what it is they’re meant to – saving lives at sea – thousands of British people stepped up to defend them.
Where did it all start? Well, it wasn’t with a creative agency being briefed to engage with an attitudinal audience segment. It started where we at Forward Action start all our work with our partners. It started with their values.
The RNLI was created to save lives at sea, and that is what its huge volunteer force of lifeboat crews are dedicated to doing.
Having come under criticism for failing to discriminate between “British” lives and those of people seeking asylum, the in-house comms team released this video showing the realities of the extreme dangers these desperate refugees are facing.
I’ve watched it countless times. I’ve cried every time. And I’ve donated – in fact I’ve set up a regular gift. And I’m not alone. In the 24 hours after that video was released, over 2 million people watched it, and they went on to give over £200,000. I’m sure that that figure has continued to rise, as the debate has continued to rage.
So why am I, as Partnerships Director at Forward Action, writing about this? Three reasons.
Firstly, there’s a beautiful clarity of message here that we can all aspire to. If you work at a campaigning organisation, or a charity, then your mission is your brand. It really is that simple. You don’t need an expensive creative agency to redesign your logo, draft gimmicky straplines or produce flashy videos. You’re not selling chocolate bars or toilet cleaner. You’re doing vital, lifesaving work. Trust that if you do your job well enough, people will care.
They do have to know about the work you’re doing to care, and that’s where the second lesson comes in. This video is a brilliant reminder in the strength of powerful content. The best way to communicate the important work that you do is through great storytelling, sharing the experiences of those doing the work, and those who benefit.
The RNLI recognised this, and their comms team acted as an effective and efficient conduit, honing the story and sharing it quickly. How easy is it for you to share great stories with your supporters? Or the public at large? How quickly can you respond when there’s a relevant news story, with your own voice, and your own take?
They knew that their message wasn’t going to be for everyone. But that wasn’t reason enough for them to keep quiet, in fact it was the reason that they had to speak up. The senior leaders at RNLI have been fronting this story with conviction – appearing on news channels and interviews, and their video has been shared far and wide.
So what is it that your organisation is afraid of saying? And who are you afraid of upsetting? And really, what’s the worst that’s going to happen – and what’s the best thing?
I hope that if we learn anything from this moment, it’s that we can look to the RNLI as a reminder to act with bravery, and without judgement in everything we do.
Want more on the importance of leading with your values? Take a look at our recent blog post on why values, rather than slogans, should be at the heart of your next campaign.