Engaging CultureStrategy & MarketingChristian Media

Is “Occupy Wall Street’s” Strategy Working?

Whatever you think about the Occupy Wall Street Movement, it’s instructive to take a look at their strategy.  Today, anyone who needs to engage the larger culture to share an important message needs to think seriously about issues like perception, platforms, competition, timing, passion, and more.  At our company, Cooke Media Group, our first job is to help our clients get noticed in a crowded, cluttered marketplace of ideas.  Then, it’s to get that target audience to embrace or act on those ideas.  From that perspective, here’s a few strategy related thoughts about  Occupy Wall Street:

1.  Having no clear leader undercuts their message.  Grass roots movements can be powerful, but in a media-driven culture someone needs to speak for the tribe.  Preferably someone articulate and admirable, who can express the goals and mission of the movement.  (Think Nelson Mandela.)  That leader also needs to take responsibility and absorb the hits if things go wrong.  People want to know where the buck stops.

2.  Protest is not enough.  A few years ago the Tea Party marched on Washington with a clear list of demands:  stop raising taxes, reduce the size of government, cut spending.  Across the movement people voiced the same vision.  But OWS?  Everyone you ask has a different demand, and as a result, the crazies get as much press coverage as those with serious concerns.  Protest is a good start, but that alone simply annoys the general public.

 3.  Solutions matter.  If all you do is complain, you’ll get tagged as “the people who are against everything.”  Many Christians are guilty of that in their over-eager boycotts of Hollywood, the gay community, or companies who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  Complain long enough without providing an alternative solution and people begin to tune you out.

 4.  Don’t leave a trail of crap (literally.)  After the Tea Party marched on Washington, network news organizations showed arial photographs after the march.  The main mall was as clean as a dining room table.  But when OWS at Zuccotti Park was finally cleared recently, there was human excrement left in piles, garbage everywhere, and hypodermic needles that had to be cleaned up.  Plus, the scattered robberies, assaults, and rapes that happened in some of the camps didn’t help the public’s perception.

 5.  The worst calamity is when the other side co-opts your cause.  While OWS has a legitimate critique of the growing income gap in America, their lack of an articulate solution gives free-enterprise advocates the chance to make a more persuasive argument on behalf of their cause.  For instance, they’ve shown real statistics that while the top 1% earns about 20% of the income today, they also pay 37% of Federal income tax.  Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that wealth inequality is roughly unchanged from as long as 80 years ago.  Those facts are adding up in the mind of the public.  Your inability to state a convincing argument leaves the other side open to make it their own.

Keep in mind that it’s not just a matter of whether the initial public agrees or disagrees with a protest movement.  Many American’s initially fought against the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, but Martin Luther King’s clear vision, and articulate strategy of nonviolence, made the public realize the rightness and inevitability of the cause.

But last week, USA Today reported their Gallup poll that revealed 6 out of 10 Americans have become indifferent to Occupy Wall Street.  It also pointed out that the number of Americans who outright disagree with the movement is rising as well.  Occupy Wall Street is losing ground, and losing it quickly.

Whatever your political philosophy, a movement will fail if it  can’t clearly articulate it’s ideals.  Particularly in today’s media-driven culture, strategy matters.




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  1. Good observations, Phil.

    And I am reminded of a conversation between Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and renegade former Army officer Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in “Apocalypse Now”:

    Willard:They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound. 

    Are my methods unsound? 

    I don’t see any method at all, sir.  

  2. Though your points are well offered, Phil, I think that you’ve missed the fundamental uniqueness of the protests. It’s inaccurate to critique OWS as a cause in the traditional sense.

    What the movement actually is, is a “shifting of the public will,” that extends far beyond a traditional protest. It is messy, precisely because it is organic.

    Your critique of their lack of strategy would be quite insightful… if OWS was playing by the rules of the establishment. They aren’t. Whatever one’s opinion of the movement, mapping their behavior should be done more like organic erosion – like a wave on a beach- rather than a marketing team or an army.

    You don’t critique the ocean for failing to strategize or offer polished demands as it crashes against a rock. You watch it, in the beauty and foolishness of a living thing that works slowly, but inexorably, to shape its environment.

    1. Not real sure how this was a “shifting of the public will.” It may have felt like it from the inside, but from the outside, it was a chaotic, confused mess with no clear message whatsoever– like a man with a megaphone but no compass. It was participated in by a mere handful of the population (not representing much diversity whatsoever), and despite rabid claims that “We are here to stay!”, has almost completely died off after only a few short months.

      As for their “methods” and “message”… again, confused and confusing at best. They close down west coast ports as they protest against big money and big business, while preventing others of their “99%-er” brethren being able to feed their families with the jobs they work hard at (dock workers, semi-truck drivers, etc.) Complete nonsense. Anarchy at best. Evil at worst.

      Finally, any movement– OWS included (and I hesitate even calling it a movement…maybe a bowel movement) has to play by common rules of communication. It’s not about the way the “establishment” (whatever that really is) communicates. The burden of communicating is on the communicator, not the listener or recipient. Blame the recipient if you like, claim an “exclusion” due to the “revolutionary” nature of the “movement” if you like, but bottom line: most people have no idea what OWS was really hoping to accomplish or how they were hoping to accomplish it. That’s not because it was “organic erosion”. It’s because it was just a mob with a megaphone but no compass– and no compass readers either.

      The effective revolutions and revolutionaries always had a specific goal (or several), and specific methods of accomplishing that. The “megaphone” (speaking metaphorically) was merely a tool of strategy dissemination. With OWS, it was their method. And it got them nowhere (aside from a notable mention in the Left-wing TIME magazine as
      “Person of the Year.” they share that with notable luminaries such as Einstein, Rudy Guliani, almost every American president, but also Hitler, Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Not necessarily a badge of honor.)

      Unfocused sound is just noise.

      1. With all respect, (and as someone from outside the active OWS movement), I think that you ought to revisit both your sources of information regarding the movement, and re-read my original comment.

        The movement is widespread, largely post-political, and again, organic. This is a shifting of public will, that resists comparison to anything we’ve seen in the American experience. I don’t blame you for having trouble understanding it. It’s quite beyond the system we’re used to, and that makes us uncomfortable.

        You are free to disagree, but you’ll do so at the expense of recognizing a shift that my grand kids will one day read about in their American History classes, and that we must engage with as thoughtful citizens of the kingdom.

        1. Thanks for your comments Paul.  I would disagree that we can’t evaluate it in terms of a “traditional” cause.  Speaking from someone who’s spent his career working with causes, there isn’t a traditional one.  My comments weren’t from that perspective, they’re from the perspective of – is anyone listening?  Is it getting the attention of the culture?  Is it making an impact?  Obviously you would disagree, but I have to defer to polls like USA Today which indicates that more than 60% of the culture could care less about OWS.  Even OWS leaders have admitted that the momentum is dropping.  My point is that there are important ways to connect your message to the greater culture.  If you can’t do that, you’ll lose the argument every time.

          1. Thanks for the comment, and clarification, Phil. 

            I especially value your point that there’s no such thing as a traditional cause, though there would seem to be some established conventions that you’re referencing as background for your solid comments about strategy.

            My point ultimately is that in the end, OWS won’t have been about making an argument. It will have been about the 40 percent of the nation that did care, that did begin to ask a deeper question of our banking and political system. In a culture characterized by chronic apathy, that number is quite an accomplishment, given that- as you point out well- they did this so unstrategically. 

          2. Concluding that 40% of Americans “cared” about OWS because 60% couldn’t care less is quite a specious assumption! A Gallup poll from November 19-20 concluded, “Two months after the Occupy Wall Street movement spread to dozens of cities and colleges, six in 10 Americans
            still don’t know enough about its goals to decide if they are for or
            against it.”

            Considering the HUGE amount of news coverage OWS received night after night,  that pretty much makes my point (and Phil’s too.)

            “The poll found the biggest change was in the percentage of Americans who
            disapprove of the way the movement is being conducted: 31%, up from 20%
            in October. One in five approved, down from one in four. ”

            Game, set, match.

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