Spitfire Strategies

Timing is Everything

It’s awards season, and whether you’re cheering for Leo to finally get his Oscar, or you’re in the #OscarsSoWhite camp, there is another award I’d like to propose over which we can hopefully find some common ground.

In the imaginary category of 2015’s Best Grassroots Campaign, I’m nominating Greenpeace and the grassroots activists across the Pacific Northwest for their #ShellNo protest against Shell’s proposed drilling in the Arctic Ocean. And while #ShellNo demonstrates many of the elements that make for a good advocacy campaign, there are many others we could nominate – and don’t ask us to pick our favorite!

To give some background, in 2012, a failed Arctic drilling attempt resulted in eight felony guilty pleas for a Shell contractor, and an oil drill running loose in Alaska. In early spring of 2015, Shell announced they were going back to the Arctic. Activists knew that it wasn’t only risky for nearby walruses and whales, but also that tapping Arctic reserves spelled game over for the earth’s climate. They sprang into action.

Later in the spring, as one of Shell’s drilling vessels anchored in the Seattle harbor to prepare for its voyage, protesters took to the seas in kayaks day after day, creating one of our favorite words of 2015 – kayaktivism. They weren’t able to stop Shell’s Polar Pioneer from leaving Seattle, but they did succeed in bringing media attention to an issue that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

In July, a Shell icebreaker carrying a safety device that had to be in the Arctic before drilling could begin underwent Bridge
repairs in Portland. Once it was fixed, Greenpeace demonstrators repelled and hung from a bridge, blocking the ship’s exit. The showdown of a ship heading for suspended climbers made for high-drama and plentiful media attention

When Shell announced it was abandoning its drilling plans, it blamed many factors. However, in private, some executives revealed they were taken aback at the scale of protests and the damage the demonstrations had done to the company’s brand. Shell also cited increased regulatory scrutiny as a reason for pulling out, which we can clearly tie back to activists’ calls to President Obama to stop Arctic drilling. While the President ultimately fell short of doing so, his agencies were paying close attention to Shell’s plans.

When external factors create opportunities for action, it is critical for changemakers to respond quickly and creatively. Greenpeace wasn’t alone in this fight. They took cues from local protesters who started the kayaktivism movement and they used innovative tactics to support a network of volunteers and resources.

imagesIn addition, Greenpeace’s activists were excellent at sticking to their message when continually prodded with questions from reporters like, “How do you go to the bathroom when you’re hanging from a bridge for multiple days?” and “Why are you using petroleum-based plastic kayaks in your protests?” When local and national media interviewed the activists, they responded clearly that the protests were about a grassroots movement and that any other questions were distractions from the fact that Arctic drilling would only lead to further climate instability.

In keeping with their campaign-execution-worthy-of-an-award-nomination credentials, Greenpeace and other activist groups didn’t rest on their laurels after their campaign victory. They cheered when Shell abandoned the Arctic, but didn’t stop there. Now, they’re calling on President Obama to keep all fossil fuels – not just those in the Arctic – in the ground. That’s a sequel we’re excited to see.


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