National Community Activists Network
This is the story of a regional rail company that decided, in the face of a local petition signed by over 5,000 people, to evict a small popular local coffee shop - and instead, give the lease to a yet another high street chain.
Except it didn’t quite work out like that. What happened was totally unexpected and extraordinary. This blog is an attempt to make sense of what happened and share what I learned about the use of Twitter and a rather clunky online platform called Pledgebank.
Let me start from the beginning. I’ve spent a miserable year, some of it on the dole, struggling to make ends meet. No time for campaigning folks, no time for NATCAN or the fight for a better society. Finding work is itself a full time job – and when you are in that situation all energy and aspiration for other things falls away.
Anyway, last Wednesday I came back to Lewes Station from Brighton to find some very unhappy faces at the Runaway Cafe, a favoured haunt for commuters and locals to grab a coffee and a bite to eat. They had been told that Southern Rail would no longer be renewing their lease and they had to get out by end February. The lease was to be awarded to a high street chain – another nail in the coffin for the local economy. For make no mistake, these brands may open up a spanking new retail outlet in the short term, a mere clone of what you will find in any high street, but in the longer term, profits and jobs are sucked out of the local economy in the form of shareholder dividends and ‘tax efficient’ financial products – you know the story!
Take note: this was a successful local business that was doing very well, not a two wheeled wagon on the verge of collapse that might have leant weight to the argument for a new business or owner.
Along with 5,000 or so other local Lewes folk, I had already signed a petition which was handed into Southern Rail supporting the renewal of their lease. We waited – and waited. Weeks went by, and then last Wednesday they just said ‘No’. No reason, No explanation or detail as to how and why the lease was awarded to a regional chain, No acknowledgement of the petition. Nothing. It just didn’t matter to Southern Rail. They clearly couldn’t give a f@*#!
My own rather disconsolate mood that day turned into rage. I was fuming! And I asked to see the boss and together we sat down and had a chat. I explained an idea that I had. Time was very short, she felt perhaps a week or a few weeks at best – moreover she had just been contacted by a certain London agent for Southern Rail who warned her not to take matters further: no more notices or petitions, no more canvassing, just pack your bags and go – with the implied threat of legal action if she stepped out of line in any way. In effect, she told me, her hands were tied and she would not be taking part in any campaign.
Over the next day or so, I created an online Pledge for myself and others to sign, using a platform called Pledgebank. My pledge basically proposed to boycott the new coffee shop not just when it opened at Lewes, but also at its existing branches at Brighton station and any other station. Both I and Ruth, my partner, emailed out the link furiously but the response was hardly overwhelming: by Friday, two days later, I only had about twelve signups and it just seemed to me that people had lost the energy to do much more than what had been done already – well how do you beat a 5,000 signed paper petition?
Then I discovered that someone had set up a Twitter Campaign – Save The Runaway Cafe. They must have started it at the same time I set up the online pledge. I still don’t know who started it and although I have been tweeting with many other ‘followers’ since, I will probably never meet most of them. Yet this campaign had fire. There were already 70 or so people signed up and it was growing rapidly. It ‘followed’ just one organisation: the high street chain that was due to take over the Runaway Cafe. Southern Rail was also tweeted to ensure they were in the picture. I also followed suit and contacted both organisations to share a link to the online pledge.
What fascinated me was the Twitter campaign with its continual stream of conversations, questions, digs, challenges, jokes, information and link sharing. Relentless, incessant and always on the tail of the high street brand and Southern Rail. It just never stopped. From their end it must have felt like an incessant background hum – always there, never quite possible to ignore it.
Then people started signing my Pledge. A few one day, more the next, until it was averaging 15-20 a day. On the last day when the news broke I had 25 signups by 4pm taking it up to a total of 80; modest but growing fast.
Pledgebank has a serious deficiency; nothing happens and in theory no-one does anything unless your reach a certain number. I was asking for 1,000 people to sing up in a week – hopelessly romantic! It is also much less interactive than Twitter: there is no conversation stream, either people sign up or they don’t. However it has one key strength: you have to set out a clear goal or set of actions that people can sign up to; it has structure and focus in a way that perhaps Twitter campaigns don’t have – and that seemed to be confirmed by some of the feedback I got with people emailing back saying they had already stopped buying coffee at the -----, Brighton.
The combined impact was decisive: 6 days after the decision to award the lease, the new coffee chain pulled out. They had had enough. Their message on facebook said:
“It is with great regret that my company xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx is announcing its withdrawal from the Tender at Lewes Station to take on The Runaway Café.
There appears to be a small but very vocal minority who have made it clear of their intentions to mount a broad attack on our business activities outside of Lewes. It is too much to ask of my loyal and incredibly hard working team, who have helped me build my business, to deal with this contingent whose activities have verged on direct intimidation. There has been a consistent and sustained misrepresentation of who we are as an entity and what our intentions are with the Runaway” etc.
Hurt feelings indeed!
Within hours, Southern Rail tweeted me separately with a link to their website saying more or less the same thing – and in a tone that seemed less than conciliatory because they appeared determined to continue reviewing other potential tenders. We all felt that we had only won round one - a reprieve, no more. We had to prepare for round two.
But something else must have happened and I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the management offices at Southern Rail as they met to discuss what to do next. Because the next day with no more ado, they announced that they were renewing the lease to the existing owners. The Runaway cafe was to stay!
Well to say we were elated is an understatement - especially the owner and her employees. It took just 80 pledgers and 140 Twitters to achieve what a petition of 5,000 had failed to do.
Some learning lessons
What is the key learning lesson I take away from all this? Well the power of social media for one thing, but there are other lessons too.
Paper petitions are good in their own way; they are newsworthy for a day – for example a photo of someone holding a petition they are about to hand in - but then what happens to the petition? Does anyone actually read it or count the signatures? Or do they just bin it? Who is to know?
You can of course use email, but as with many companies, complaints and email contact is now form based – fill in your details and click send. There is no open conversation. And who actually looks and replies to such emails? Apart from a business support worker diligently logging each complaint in a spreadsheet, then copying and pasting a standard reply, what exactly is achieved?
With Twitter and Pledgebank, the conversation is open and takes place on an independent platform. It may just be two people signing a pledge, but that pledge is one click away from a million other people who might suddenly take an interest. With Twitter it is live, interactive, combustible and unpredictable – a hornet’s hum of sharp, probing tweets that sting, dig and chip away.
The second thing I learned is that what matters to these guys is brand. It matters more than anything – even customers. Hurt their brand and they go running for cover. As a marketing manager for a respected brand, what sense do you make of a twitter campaign with two followers? Do you say ‘Huh! Well I’m not going to lose any sleep over that!” or do you say “wait a moment, suppose tomorrow it is 200? Or the next day 2,000?” Do you watch and wait? If so, at what point do you realise you’ve made a catastrophic error of judgement and now find yourself at the centre of an encircling brushfire? Speed, unpredictability, scalability. You just don’t know what is going to happen next or how quickly.
As more and more businesses invest heavily in social media and build online communities to promote brand identity, how much is this both a risk and opportunity for them? How much does it lay them open to new forms of exposure and scrutiny?
The social media landscape is shifting and unpredictable with dips, bends, drops and climbs. Hard terrain on which to build a solid marketing strategy that you can control and direct – but great cover for guerrilla campaigners who come from nowhere to give you a very hard punch on the nose.
The third thing I learnt was that these things really don’t take much time to build and run. No time expended having to organise a meeting for fifty people with all the attendant costs of booking a date, a speaker and location convenient to everyone. No leaflets to produce and distribute. No project plan to create and cost etc. You just do it. It took little time to create the pledge and email it out – and no time at all to register as a ‘follower’ of the local Twitter campaign. In the end I probably wasted more time by checking my phone to see who had written the next tweet!
The fourth thing is that online campaigns, particularly those using Twitter are rarely unified and there is likely to be dissension and even a counter current. Certainly there were dissenters who started tweeting a more discordant and critical voice; why not let the new guys have a chance? Don’t be so sentimental about local businesses etc. Conversations are porous and allow other views in. This goes with the terrain and I personally see this as healthy. In the end there was only one person who was apparently barred because of a suspect identity and spam like comments totally supporting the new chain.
One key point of dissension was the wording of my pledge. This did not split the group; it was just that some people thought my approach was unethical: why did I pledge not to drink their coffee at Brighton or elsewhere? Was that fair on the chain who were well established at Brighton Station? Why not just stick to Lewes? Others, for strategic reasons felt I should have stuck to Lewes – but they were still broadly supportive of the approach.
Here I have to disagree with them. This may have been a small well established chain in the South but 'local' it was not - it was owned by a national company. Tactically, if we had restricted the focus of the Pledge wording to Lewes, that might have encouraged the chain to play a waiting game and hope things would die down. But they could not afford to do that if, day by day, people were signing up to say that they would not be drinking their coffee at any station, let alone Lewes. Brighton is just down the road and they do good business from Lewes and other commuters who catch the London to Brighton train.
Anyway, such are my thoughts. I hope others find them useful. And to those who might say “well I would do something like this, but I probably won’t get much more than a handful of supporters” I say “Do it anyway! You just don’t know what will take light!”.
Here is a quick summary of what I would do next time:
I am sure there are other points or suggestions that people could add to, especially the more seasoned campaigners. I would be really interested to hear from them... I am beginning to get a taste for this!
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