Sunday, May 19, 2013
How to write an effective online petition in 5 easy steps
Posted by Shark Defenders
by AJ Sablan
For the purposes of this exercise, we are assuming that you have identified an environmental problem and that you want to fix that problem.
Online petition signatures play a prominent role in the modern environmental movement and learning how to write better petitions will make us better campaigners and allow us to harness the power of our least active supporters. And when I say campaigners, I say it with the understanding that a petition is being created as part of a campaign. Writing and publishing an online petition should never in and of itself be considered a campaign, but it can be an important tool in a larger strategy.
On their own, online signature petitions are one of the least effective means of campaigning. This is not to say that they are completely ineffective, there are just more effective tools and strategies out there.
Online petitions are created so that the least active activists can add their name and support to an issue. Policy makers understand this and often times when a petition is submitted it is listed in the public record by its title and the number of signatures. Regardless of the number of signatures, it counts as one.
In the world of advocacy, emails are more effective than online signatures. Letters carry more weight than emails. Telephone calls get better results than letters. And face-to-face meetings, especially repeated meetings with influential people, lead to real change.
The perfect example of using a petition as part of a larger strategy is our Guam Shark Fin Ban campaign in 2011. We worked with students at Simon Sanchez High School and George Washington High School to develop an online petition, a paper petition, and a letter writing campaign. At a public hearing at the Guam Senate, hundreds of students showed up with stacks of letters and petitions and holding signs. The public support was so overwhelming the senators had no choice but to pass the law unanimously. The online petition played only a part.
It is also important to note that not all petitions are created to call for change. Sign a politician’s petition and you’ll quickly start receiving requests for campaign donations. Many member driven environmental organizations do the same thing. Shark Defenders does something similar, but we don’t ask for money. We ask you to sign our pledge and this adds you to our email list, which we use to follow up later when we need you to sign a petition, write a letter, or attend a public hearing. This blog is not meant to help you differentiate between other organization’s petitions, but to help you create your own.
#1. Use proper spelling and grammar
You know those emails you get from Nigeria asking you to send them money? That’s what policy makers think of when you send them your petition with grammar and spelling mistakes. Try to avoid that. And don’t use slang or emoticons, either.
#2. Be specific with what you are asking
In order to protect sharks, we can change laws, regulations, policies, or international agreements. This can be done by passing legislation, going through the regulatory process, issuing an executive order, or getting all members of an international body to agree on something, respectively. There may be other ways of protecting sharks, but this covers all the shark fin trade bans, shark sanctuaries, and international and regional agreements created thus far. For example, with the recent successes at CITES, petitions such as Shark Stanley, asked governments to vote yes on shark protections. In Guam we asked for support of Bill 44. A blanket call to protect sharks or end “finning” does not help. In fact, you should know the difference between finning, fin trade bans, and shark fishing (this will be the topic of an upcoming blog). You have to be specific by spelling out what it is you want to change.
#3. Target the person or organization you want to take action
Speaking of which, not only does your petition have to explain how you want to protect sharks, it also has to target the person who is going to do it. Are you asking your legislature to pass a law? Do you want the president to sign it? Do you want the foreign minister to support something at an international meeting? Whatever policy it is you want changed, there is a real human being who will have to either change it or carry it out. That person has an email address and an office with both a mailbox and a telephone. Figure out who that person or persons may be, and make them the target of your efforts. You need to understand the process of how that person will make that change, too. During the recent CITES meeting, many petitions called on CITES to protect sharks when in fact it was the members countries that did the voting. Some of the petitions were only delivered to the countries that were already supporting the proposals, too. It was the petitions that were delivered to the undecided countries that mattered. Take issues like this into account when you target your petition.
#4. Deliver your petition
All your effort creating a specific ask to a targeted person with proper grammar and spelling will have been a waste of time if your petition is not delivered. Some of the petition websites deliver emails to the targets, but not all of them do. You can also deliver your petition in person by printing it up, putting a cover sheet on it and carrying it to your target’s office. You can also deliver it via the media. Call up your local reporter and tell them how many people signed your petition and see if they’ll write a story.
#5. Be Creative
And most importantly, stand out from the crowd. Policy makers receive a barrage of communication from their constituents. There are already a mess of shark petitions out there, not to mention petitions for everything else under the sun including guns, jobs, abortion, government spending, education, and you name it. There is an advocacy group for every issue these days. You need to make your voice and the voice of your supporters heard above all that noise. We think Shark Stanley did a very good job of doing this. What’s your creative idea?
BONUS: Give your supporters something else to do
And remember, an online petition is the least effective tool in your advocacy arsenal. You should have it available for your least active supporters to sign, but at the same time you should also be helping your more active supporters send emails, make phone calls, and set up meetings.
We encourage your feedback and ideas you may have. Please leave them in the comments section of the blog (not Facebook and Twitter).