Painting a bigger picture
Close your eyes and imagine; Jill, a mother and part-time social worker is stood nervously on stage. Her hands grip the lectern as she glances over her lengthy notes on climate change, peak oil and economics. Until a year ago she knew almost nothing of Transition and she certainly never did much public speaking...
Today she's been invited to her local Resident's Association. It's important this speech goes well. Her fledgling "Transition Fulchester" initiative urgently needs new members; many of the volunteers who joined a year ago are exhausted.
To make matters worse, this evening she's already heard mutterings suggesting some members of the audience believe Transition to be "that weird basket-weaving cult" or "them ageing hippies pretending to be farmers".
Clearing her throat, Jill begins "Good evening everyone. Thank you so much for inviting me here tonight. Can we have a quick show of hands for who's already familiar with the Transition movement?" About three people uncertainly raise their arms. There are about thirty people present. Jill has a long night ahead of her.
Keep your eyes closed...
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe not far away, a slightly different scene is unfolding: Jill's onstage at the same Resident's Association meeting. An excited buzz fills the hall. The space is packed with over one hundred people. More are stood outside, peering in. Jill can overhear chatter about recent developments across the UK. The need to transition to a greener, more resilient and localised world has been the hot topic of debate around the country all year.
Just last week, the BBC's national evening news devoted a whole half hour to Rob Hopkins debating Permaculture education with both coalition and Labour MPs. The Daily Mail ran a recent interview with Shaun Chamberlin on the introduction of David Fleming's revolutionary "TEQs" scheme. And the past few months have seen the major broadsheets (and even right-wing tabloid The Sun) all publish major op-eds on the urgent need to help the whole country become more resilient and transition to re-localised economies. It's an almost wartime mobilisation of every conceivable communications medium available to ensure everyone in the country is aware of what's happening.
Steph Bradley's fortnightly spot on the Blue Peter has already led many schools (including two in Jill's local area) to start their own initiatives. Pester power is beginning to have an effect upon parents. And Jill often grins impishly whenever she recalls Peter Lipman's now-infamous Peak Oil interview on Top Gear back in 2010; the first time she'd ever seen Jeremy Clarkson left speechless. The video has been trending on Twitter and shared all around Facebook ever since.
On top of all the national media coverage, as part of National Transition Day her initiative recently ran a hilarious town-centre flash mob publicity stunt simultaneously with fifty other initiatives across the country. It made headlines on both national and local TV as well as the local Fulchester Chronicle. After that it was easy to get the editor to run her press release as a feature article last week which is why the hall is now packed.
Confident with the knowledge that she's a local representative for an enormous and well-recognised global movement and knowing her audience are already primed, she clears her throat and begins: "Good evening everyone, you all know why we're here. So who's already familiar with Transition?" Nearly every hand of the several hundred present is waving merrily in the air.
And Jill beams and begins to tell her tale.
These two scenarios helped focus the Communications group workshop at the Conference earlier this year. As you can probably guess, we reached the conclusion that the Transition movement could draw enormous benefits from working on a joined-up, centralised communications strategy. Such a strategy could raise awareness of our movement on the national stage thereby enabling us to reach far more people.
Right now, Transition occupies a vital space as one of the most powerful good news stories around. We have vital messages and are refreshingly and unapologetically positive in the face of formidable economic and environmental concerns. Yet we're not making national headlines at a time when it's really important for our message to get out.
Of course, obtaining strong press coverage has always challenged grass roots movements. We're no exception. But, as a localisation movement, the focus of most initiatives is naturally towards local media. So it's hardly surprising the nationals aren't beating a path to our door. Sadly, the modern world we inhabit is an attention economy. The public's willingness to absorb information is a precious commodity and our media prioritise newsworthy content to hold their attention: celebrity gossip and scandal makes headlines while corporations can pay to force their messages in front of us. We cannot do the same. So how could we become more newsworthy at the national level?
In truth, we already use some strong communications techniques like reframing and clear messaging. For instance, the Four Recognitions act as a basic message platform, while Rob's brilliant send-up of celebrity articles in the first edition of the Handbook are richly imaginative examples of reframing. Even the idea of using a communications strategy is an extension of the Transition Network's idea that in order to raise awareness, we must "go to where people already are." Since most people in the UK do not spend their weekend evenings (as I once did) watching the End of Suburbia or reading Dimitry Orlov and Mike Ruppert, how can we help them find us? Transition Streets offers one route but we would argue that mass communications offers another.
We imagined a "strategy" to help unify the network's communications activities, with most of the hard coordination work being done centrally while Initiatives align some of their activities if they can. Just because we're localising doesn't mean we can't also coordinate nationally to gain benefits from the scale of our extraordinary movement. It's important to note this wouldn't necessarily involve any more work for initiatives; simply that the work we do could have greater significance. Another approach might be to encourage the Network's "leaf" logo to become seen as a "kite mark" of localisation excellence or like a Soil Association or Fair Trade marque.
Perhaps many might feel that some form of top-down strategy from the Network would feel imposed and undemocratic but of course the network already coordinates activities like training and the conference itself which are run openly. With more resource they could also coordinate Communications, by connecting our activities, key messaging and perhaps consider running appropriate national publicity stunts, simultaneously around the country. Perhaps Tooting's fabulous Trash-catchers carnival points to what a National Transition Day might look like.
Our team debated whether the Network should seek funding to bring a Public Relations firm onboard to help plan a strategy. We realised that if we want to make a difference, PR expertise is an expensive but important investment. However, as Charlotte herself mentioned "Transition is not built on slash-and-burn empire principles, it’s grown according to the grassroots principles of permaculture" so, perhaps one way to augment a PR agency's activities could be to encourage a group like Ed Mitchell's Transition Technologists who built the site you are reading right now. Or volunteer PR agencies like BrightOne might also be worth exploring.
Our movement focuses on re-localisation so it stands to reason that the bulk of our activities must be local. Nevertheless, a set of national media activities could be so valuable to us all at the local level. So this really isn't a proposal to replace amazing work being done by Transition Streets and similar activites but to augment and strengthen those projects so their work becomes easier and so that we are pushing against more open doors.
Rob wrote recently that, "the Comms group might argue that modern modern communications represent a toolbox which could be profoundly useful in the hands of skilled craftspeople." Chris Wells, Transition Kensal to Kilburn