Campaigning for Change

Lessons from the historic campaign that saw the Republic of Ireland legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote.

Campaigning for Change

Marriage Equality

In May 2015 the Republic of Ireland became the first state to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote.

The historic referendum result followed a campaign for change that was powered by personal stories and connected people across society with an appeal for equality. What lessons could be drawn from this campaign and might they be relevant for other issues?

Drawing Lessons

One year after the referendum result the lessons were discussed by 130 activists from 17 different countries who gathered for a special summer school held in Killiney, Ireland.

The international event 'Campaigning for Change' was organised by SCI in conjunction with Social Intelligence Associates. It brought together a range of expert speakers, including successful international and Irish campaigners, key political figures, campaign partners, and political and social commentators.

Lesson 1: Social Media

Today facts abound to the point of being overwhelming. With so much so called `truth', the influencing value of personal stories has never been greater.

  • Social media can provide social justice campaigns with extraordinary opportunities to tell personal stories and advance messages.
  • A good social media strategy not only gets your message out, but allows you to control the message and tone of a campaign.
  • Social media allows individuals to be involved at their own place and pace.
  • Explore memes, infographics, campaign alerts, online actions, pledges, apps to inform and activate your public.
  • A winning campaign dominates the dominant mode of communication. Deploy different types of social media to meet the needs and opportunities of various target groups.

Craig Dwyer, social media director for Yes Equality during the referendum, and Finian Murphy of Straight Up For Equality reflected on the historic campaign for a Yes vote.

Lesson 2: The Personal is Political

Successful campaigns understand how attitudes are shaped.

  • People need to see the relevance of the issue within the context of their own experience.
  • Give voters a glimpse of the kind of nation they could have – leverage that basic human desire to achieve one’s better self.
  • Facts are important, but values and emotions are more persuasive – humanise and connect your goal to the lives of ordinary citizens.

The Psychologist and commentator Dr Maureen Gaffney, Seamus Dooley of Trade Unionists for Civil Marriage Equality and Thalia Zepatos of Freedom to Marry (USA) spoke of the way in which successful campaigns bridge difference.

Lesson 3: Prioritising Communications

How you frame your message matters: what you have passion to say may not be what you need to be saying.

  • Ground your communications strategy on good research that reflects the concerns, values and priorities of those you are trying to influence.
  • Decide your campaign message and tone, and stick to it – keep your messaging relevant and consistent.
  • Support message discipline across all your activists and allies.
  • Story telling needs to be at the core of your communications strategy – facts convince, but emotions motivate people to act.
  • Model the journey for the undecided – use messengers that people can relate to and who will give people permission to evolve their thinking.
  • Find `unlikely' messengers that don’t fit the image people expect – spotlight the voices of 'permission givers' like athletes, celebrities, faith leaders and other role models.

Dr Maureen Gaffney, Tanya Ward, Thalia Zepatos, journalist Paddy Smyth, Craig Dwyer explained how you frame your message matters.

Lesson 4: Diverse Alliances

Build alliances early in your campaign and prioritise inclusiveness.

  • See your issues through the eyes of others to develop common language and shared goals.
  • Prioritise inclusiveness – allies don’t have to agree on everything. Find that common ground and stick to it to nurture trust and partnership.
  • Look for natural “connectors” – remember that your activists have grandparents!

Seamus Dooley and Finian Murphy added that alliances are key to victory, but take commitment.

Lesson 5: Clear Strategy

Every campaign needs a Headquarters.

  • Understand, acknowledge and leverage the strengths that your advocates and partner groups bring to the campaign.
  • Make best use of your activists – have a volunteer strategy that articulates key roles, responsibilities, and protocols.
  • Create templates and tool kits that aid outreach and list-building – make these available to activists.
  • Utilise politicians wisely – empower the grassroots and let civil society take the lead.
  • Understand and manage your opposition – don’t let it overwhelm your campaign.
  • Share the recognition – allow your advocates and partners to own their victories.

Thalia Zepatos addressed the need to engage the middle and build momentum.