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Digital campaigning in the time of Covid

29 May 2020

In the last 18 months, Friends of the Earth changed how it campaigns, focusing even more on supporting community action on climate change. Knowing such action needs a huge amount of people power, we expanded our group network with new Climate Action Groups to provide a local solution to a global crisis. A move that saw almost 200 groups formed or joined in the first year. Then Coronavirus changed everything, for everyone.

Luckily the work we started last year to build community power and support a widespread network actually became a valuable resource in the unfolding crisis. In particular helping us to pivot quickly to remote working while reaching community groups so they could adapt, support each other, and keep going.

Networks like ours have been vital in helping people during isolation and difficult times. Everything we were trying to achieve had to find a way to continue but, more tightly wrapped up in the reasons that inspire our campaigning: to offer active hope to people.

The climate crisis hasn’t meekly receded. It’s right that all focus is on COVID-19 currently, but our networks were telling us that people still wanted to get stuck in and keep going. We needed to support communities to convert to online campaigning. We had already invested heavily in this, now we had to use it exclusively.

There are two key things to acknowledge here: we started this a while ago: nobody can go from a standing start in lockdown and start a totally different way of doing things. That will damage your campaign, and probably your health.

The next was to apply what had worked before: test, learn, and listen. We didn’t go out to communities and tell them what to do, we asked what they wanted, what they needed, and what they thought would work.

What action did we take to support digital campaigning in the midst of COVID-19?

There’s always going to be a mix of familiarity with various online platforms. So, we skilled up more staff to deliver additional digital tools training and allowed time and space for people’s individual questions.

Just as importantly, we added wellbeing sessions. We are going through something collective and deeply worrying. To be effective climate activists in the future, our physical and mental wellbeing now is important. Here’s a breakdown of what we did, when, and why:

  • When lockdown began, guidance was issued for our network advising them to follow government advice and letting them know we would be moving all our events and training online. We asked them to do the same with their own events and offered compensation for any costs lost.
  • Staff time was shifted over to provide more digital support and we brought forward plans to recruit a team of digital volunteers from the network itself – adding capacity and providing another opportunity for peer support which is a key element of a strong, self-sustaining network with the capacity to grow.
  • Our Take Climate Action website was reframed around COVID-19, with particular focus on helping people stay safe mentally and physically, advice on how people can link up with other community groups (in particular the Mutual Aid groups springing up under lockdown), as well as tips on how to campaign virtually and how to articulate these issues.

The feedback we had from all of this was positive. Early on, simply providing an online space to talk to other people was invaluable. One of our groups in Hampshire said:

“For us as a rural group, it really works to meet each other online. There’s no need to get our cars out and drive across the forest in the dark, avoiding ponies. We want to do it after lockdown too.”

Moving forward as a network, Friends of the Earth will continue drawing on these learnings to support one another. Our campaigning changed during the crisis, we adapted, listened, and supported, and from now on these models will continue to evolve even as our goals remain the same as ever.

Access to nature is important to our physical and mental wellbeing. But the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how many people – particularly in urban areas – are robbed of important green space. We continue to campaign to make neighbourhoods and parks cleaner, greener and healthier for everyone. In the post COVID-19 recovery, we have to make sure that our recent experience of better air quality, lower carbon emissions and simple things like hearing birdsong are prioritised by building the next normal around active travel, access to nature, and ending our reliance on fossil fuels.

The value of our actions

Our first virtual events focused on positive connection and support, including sessions on campaigning in the coronavirus context where people could ask questions and share what they were doing around the country. There were practical sessions, on things like holding meetings via Zoom, and we also set up ‘care and connect’ sessions: open spaces for people to socialise and support each other, as well as sharing hopes, fears, and coping mechanisms under lockdown. The importance of doing this for our network has been invaluable.

Further to this, discussion sessions also talked about a fair recovery and how we can ‘build back better’. These are unsettling times, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society. The most important thing is to keep ourselves, and the wider community safe so we encouraged people to reach out to others.

For us, it has also been vital to celebrate the innovative and positive work that was going on despite the adverse conditions. We reached the 1-year anniversary of our first Climate Action Group and allowed ourselves to reflect and share those success stories. Now we are looking ahead to reaching 200 groups very shortly, and plan to celebrate this achievement, demonstrating the strength of the network particularly during this crisis.

What’s surprising is the opportunities provided by digital organising and moving online – for example, training and meetings have become newly accessible to people who found it hard before. Strong connections have also been formed with new groups in society that we previously struggled to link up with – e.g. local groups active on health and other social justice issues.

What does this mean for the future? 

Not everyone needs to be a digital native who loves technology. With support and training campaigns can keep going, and for Friends of the Earth, that’s because climate change hasn’t gone away. Your organisation’s goals probably haven’t changed either, they’ve likely only intensified, but the path to achieving them has got to change.

Successful campaigning that is able to respond, reflect and adapt flexibly is needed now more than ever if we want to keep on delivering and achieving real-world impact, even if the world looks very different now.

Image Pixabay on Pexels

Jenny Rosenberg

Head of Campaign Activism, Friends of the Earth

Jenny Rosenberg leads the Campaign Activism team at Friends of the Earth and has coordinated the virtual support for the activist network under lockdown.