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The Sons of Neptune: promoting change from the outside

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A recent news feature on the BBC News website may have gone largely unnoticed by many. It concerned a group of friends who became worried about sewage in the sea around Scarborough, North Yorkshire, in the 1980s. It made the news because their story is being turned into a film.

In 1983, the group decided to take action. Styling themselves the ‘Sons of Neptune’, they started a campaign to stop untreated sewage being discharged into the sea. While the Sons appreciated they would have to change minds at the highest level of the water industry, they could hardly have anticipated that they would be in immediate confrontation with the local borough council and later with the national government under Margaret Thatcher.

Long-established stakeholders with entrenched interests are difficult enough to influence, but this challenge is magnified many times over if you are outside of the corporate governance structure. So why were the Sons successful, and what was different about the approach they took compared to many other campaign groups?

Promoting change from the outside doesn’t come so much from direct action, but from inspiring a sense of shared purpose. You can’t expect people or corporations simply to do what you want them to, because you can’t change fundamental behaviours without changing fundamental beliefs first. Heroic dreams about overpowering established stakeholders by force of numbers is all very well, but the truth is that it takes hard work to build the traction necessary to forge common ground. And that isn’t always obvious from the outset.

So how do you advance the cause of a special interest project from outside the corporate bubble? Here are five methods that were used by the Sons.

1. The more conflict there is, the less positive the impact

Many firms find it difficult to handle conflicts with external interest groups. Most often, change efforts from special interest projects can fail because they seek to overpower rather than attract. Notable examples include the Occupy movement that established occupations of notable landmarks, the Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests protests) in France where participation in the weekly protests diminished due to violence. Even an initially popular idea can spin out of control and lose credibility. In short, the more conflict there is, the less likely it is that interest groups will impact policymaking.

2. Get the facts

Do your own research so that you understand the case better than your opponents. Some special interest projects are complex and not only difficult to understand, but also difficult to explain to those not familiar with the facts. Your role is to explain things clearly. If you want some ideas on this, explore Edward de Bono’s black hat techniques, because you need to explain concepts and technicalities in a way that the layperson will understand. Feelings rather than facts often drive beliefs, so as well as a deep understanding of the details, an understanding of the feelings and emotions associated with the situation is required as well.

3. Be respectful

Understandably, there will be opposing points of view and different desired outcomes. Effective groups show both a confidence in themselves and also a level of respect to those with a different view. Stakeholders need to hear and understand your position, but will also judge you on how you treat others. Remember, if you want to work with your opponents at the end of the engagement, you need to establish a degree of trust as a basis of a future working relationship.

4. Timing

The timing of information released needs to ensure maximum exposure. In the case of the Sons, press releases or publicity events were timed as a counter or balance to shareholder AGMs, which already attracted a degree of exposure generated by the corporate’s own public affairs department. Journalists who report on corporate activities often take an interest in considered counter-arguments in order to provide a balanced picture.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of humour

Messages need to accommodate the media, and since television and social media are primarily visual, it’s not enough simply to make a press statement. A key message needs an event and something that will interest the viewer – and what works well is humour. As Victor Borge once put it, laughter is the shortest distance between two people.

Not only does humour makes the information more memorable, it builds rapport that increases the chance of having a positive impact on behaviour change. Humorous messages are most effective if they complement other persuasive messages, because if the audience is comfortable with you, they are willing to be redirected down a path of your choosing.

In the case of the Sons, they often dressed up for their protests: on occasions, as undertakers or hooded figures chasing costumed holidaymakers across the beach. Indeed, several publicity events had more than a passing resemblance to a Monty Python sketch.

Against the odds, the Sons of Neptune’s project to achieve a specific planned objective was successful, and there are some insights that special interest project groups can take away. I for one look forward to the film when it comes out.

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