online_activismA few weeks ago I got an email from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) with the subject line “Tell President Obama: No compromise on saving whale’s lives.” The body of the email contained a link to a page that, with a single click of my computer mouse, would send a message to the president expressing my concern that the US is not taking a strong enough position against whaling. I obligingly sent the message; then I wondered: How effective are these kinds of emails?

 

If you’re a member of one of the many major animal advocacy groups, you’re no doubt familiar with these messages. Heck, you don’t even need to be a member: emails like these can be forwarded to friends, and online petitions are as common as recycle bins at a Prius convention. But I’ve never felt completely satisfied that this one-click activism was benefiting animals. I was curious, and I wanted to make sure I was being effective as an advocate. Do elected officials and other decision-makers even care about the mass emails they receive?

 

So I called the office of Dianne Feinstein in Washington, DC, figuring my state senator would be only too happy to answer my questions. (No, I am not thrilled she co-sponsored the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but that’s another topic.) I spoke with David Hantman, an aide in Senator Feinstein’s office. “I would say those emails are very effective,” he says. Hantman explains that when such emails come into their office, they are forwarded to the person in charge of the issue, who then discusses it with the senator. “They will then work on a response with the senator.” If it’s an individual sending the email, the senator will know that one person wrote about an issue. “But if it’s a campaign of 10,000 emails, she won’t go through them all; she’ll see that 10,000 people emailed her on one issue.” Does it make any difference if she receives thousands of emails on a single issue versus, say, five? “Definitely,” says Hantman. “She knows that that many people care about that issue. If she were to receive five emails on any given issue, she may say, ‘This may not be as important to my constituents — only five people have written me  — compared to 10,000 people on this other issue.’”

 

Hantman stresses that every piece of communication counts. “Even if one person is writing, the Senator knows it is something that is affecting her constituents, but when more people email, she knows more people are concerned about that issue.” Plus, emails, letters and phone calls inform her (and any legislator) about what’s happening in, for example, the animal protection movement. “Animal welfare is one of the main issues she’s concerned with,” Hantman told me, “so when animal issues are brought to her attention, they’re definitely things she wants to investigate. It may be something that wasn’t even on her radar until someone writes her about it. So writing always helps.”

 

“These emails do work, but as part of a larger campaign,” says Grace Markarian, HSUS’ manager of online communications. HSUS combines these alerts with information on its Web site and on social-networking sites or even direct mail. Grace admits that asking people to contact President Obama is rare; it’s far more likely an email will target a company like Ben & Jerry’s. In 2006, as they were trying to get the frozen-dessert company to adopt a policy of using only cage-free eggs in its ice cream, HSUS sent an email alert to their members, resulting in so much communication to Ben & Jerry’s that the company, which responds to all its mail, couldn’t keep up. “Being able to say Ben & Jerry’s received 60,000 emails from customers demonstrates a tidal wave of response,” adds Erin Williams, communications director for HSUS’ factory farming campaign. Not only did the campaign work, but people could quickly send Ben & Jerry’s a thank-you email via the HSUS Web site.

 

Kim Sturla of Animal Place agrees one-click activism can be effective, but she warns that you can’t generalize. “Some aides don’t tally, for example.” Kim says her organization has struggled with the e-alert issue as technology and communication methods have evolved, but the results are still positive. “You’re encouraging people to become more active,” she says. “Maybe next time they’ll send a letter.”

 

Two other animal advocacy groups that use email alerts, Farm Sanctuary and PETA, are adamant they do make a difference. “If it weren’t effective, we wouldn’t be doing it so much,” says Tricia Barry, communications director for Farm Sanctuary. “We ran a report in January, and we found it’s become even more effective. From the action alerts we sent in January, we had sixty-six hundred letters sent to various legislators on various issues. It definitely prompts action.”

 

“I think they’re probably more effective for PETA than for other organizations because most people seem to use them to contact legislators and other government officials,” says Joel Bartlett, who manages PETA’s online marketing department. Joel explains that people also use them to communicate with corporations, allowing them to voice their displeasure over, say, a company selling fur. “Ten thousand people send them a message over a weekend and they’re like, ‘Uh-oh.’ We win campaigns thanks to our online action alerts.”

 

So click away, activists. You never know which piece of information is finally going to make the difference, and it all adds up.

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