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Beautiful Trouble: Hijack the Mainstream

A trickster's guide to earned media. First in a series on creative activism.

Patrick Reinsborough, Doyle Canning and David Russell 1 Jan 2015Beautiful Trouble

Patrick Reinsborough is a strategist, organizer and creative provocateur with over 20 years of experience campaigning for peace, justice, indigenous rights and ecological sanity. Patrick has helped organize countless creative interventions, including mass direct actions that shut down the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 and protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is the author of numerous essays on social change theory and practice, including co-writing Re:Imagining Change (PM Press 2010). He is the co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme), a movement support organization which harnesses the power of narrative for fundamental social change. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.

Doyle Canning was struck by a tear gas canister in the streets of Seattle in 1999, and has never been the same since. She is a creative strategist with a deep commitment to building broad-based movements for social justice and an ecological future. Doyle is a co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme). She delivers training, coaching, facilitation and framing to high-impact networks who are taking on greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, racist laws and polluting policies. Doyle is co-author of Re:Imagining Change with Patrick Reinsborough. She lives with her husband in Boston, where she enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and making music. She tweets at @doylecanning.

Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. Joshua has written numerous movement strategy essays, chapters for several books, and a few organizing manuals, most recently Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore (PM Press 2011). He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations.

Media-jacking is when you subvert your opponent's spectacle for your own purposes.

Politicians, corporations and lobbyists have much bigger PR budgets and name-brand draw to attract press to their staged media events. Through well-planned creative interventions, however, you can refocus things and highlight a different side the story.

There are a few different ways to design a successful media-jacking. The first is simply commandeering the media. One of the most literal (and bold) examples of this occurred in 1991 during the first Gulf War, when the anti-AIDS organization ACT UP burst into a CBS TV studio during a live primetime news broadcast and took over the set, chanting "Fight AIDS, not Arabs."

Another option is to use your opposition's platform to tell your own story. In 2007, Kleenex ran an expensive PR stunt where they interviewed people on the street for a commercial they were making, getting participants to cry and say, "I need a Kleenex."

Greenpeace activists stealthily lined up to be interviewed, crying instead because Kleenex was clear-cutting old growth forests to make their tissues. They successfully shut down the shoot for the rest of the day, and a video of the action went viral.

Sophisticated media-jacking uses your target's own story against them, undermining them at the point of assumption. For example, when activists from United for a Fair Economy hijacked the Republican stunt on Tax Day 1998, they turned the message "taxes = oppression" on its head, to show instead that tax breaks for the rich are destroying working families.

Similarly, in 2006, activists with the Rainforest Action Network made fake press passes, put on suits and snuck into the Los Angeles Auto Show. Rick Wagoner, the CEO of General Motors, was giving a keynote address about how "environmentally friendly" GM's cars are. The speech was bullshit, but rather than saying it was bullshit, RAN activists stepped on to the stage and up to the mic, pretending to be the emcees.

They congratulated Wagoner, then told the audience that they were pleased to announce that GM was prepared to commit in writing to the promises he'd just made, and unfurled an oversized "pledge" that they asked him to sign. He had two options: 1) sign it, and give the campaigners something in writing to hold him to, or 2) refuse, demonstrating his dishonesty. He chose the second option, and the media went nuts. Over 700 media outlets ran stories about GM's greenwashing exposed.


What is it? Commandeering mainstream media for a social cause.

Common uses: To undermine your opposition's narrative by hijacking their event; to draw attention to your side of the story; to capitalize on your target's media presence; to reframe an issue; to be a jackass.

Key principle: Show, don't tell.

Media-jacking offers activists the unique opportunity to not just engage opponents on their playing field, but to actually call the shots and reframe the discussion. By putting their targets on the spot in front of the media, they can reshape how the public perceives the "good guys" and "bad guys" and flip their opponents' story on its head.

Potential pitfalls: Media is an extremely uneven terrain of struggle. Accurate and sympathetic media coverage is often based on having good relationships with journalists, so be careful your action doesn't alienate the very media professionals you need to be covering the story.

Adapted from Beautiful Trouble with permission. To learn more about the project, go here.

Please note our comment threads will be closed Dec. 22 to Jan. 5 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. Happy holidays, readers.  [Tyee]

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