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If you’re a regular reader of this blog (well, of the blogs I infrequently post here, anyway), you know that I’ve written a couple times about the power of online activism – notably here and here. While there are other forms of advocacy I prefer, I don’t think there’s any question that online petitions have become an influential force in the movement. We need look no further than SeaWorld for evidence.
Yesterday’s news that Southwest Airlines is ending its quarter-century relationship with SeaWorld came as a surprise to no one who has noted the growing popularity – and power – of petitions hosted on social-change platforms like Care2 and Change.org. Southwest’s marketing partnership irked many of its customers, leading some to boycott the airline altogether. One such customer was Robin Merritt, who launched a petition on Change.org calling on Southwest executives and its board of directors to dump SeaWorld. “Southwest Airlines has a choice,” read the petition. “Will it support the animal cruelty at SeaWorld or make a compassionate choice to end this partnership of cruelty?” More than 32,000 people signed the petition with a simple click, and the air carrier finally made the compassionate choice.
“I started my petition on Change.org because Blackfish got so many people talking about how these orcas are confined to tiny tanks, and then 32,000 people joined me,” said Robin. “I’m so ecstatic. This just goes to show that companies do really value customers’ opinions, and I thank Southwest for listening to us and making this decision.”
This was just the latest in a string of anti-SeaWorld victories animal advocates have been celebrating in recent months, and let’s be honest, we owe a lot of thanks to Blackfish – that heart-wrenching 2013 documentary that is turning the tide against animal captivity. The film has not only raised public awareness about the plight of confined and exploited marine mammals, but it’s inspired scores of everyday animal lovers to launch online petitions against SeaWorld and other businesses that keep animals. And we’re experiencing a sea change.
Last year, says Pulin Modi, senior campaigner at Change.org, people launched successful petitions asking Willie Nelson, Barenaked Ladies, Heart, and other musical acts to cancel scheduled SeaWorld performances. “I think they were successful because the petitions were generally started by fans who were very sincere in their disappointment, and the artists realized it probably wasn’t worth risking their reputation for one show, and the right timing with people buzzing about Blackish on social media.”
When it comes to online petitions, strategy is more important than the number of signatures. “You can have one million people asking Congress to shut down all the factory farms, but that’s not winnable at the moment and not terribly interesting,” says Pulin. “But if you can get people to get behind a specific campaign to pressure an influential company to make a change, that’s more likely to win, appeal to media, and show the power of consumers.” One example he offers is Daelyn Fortney, whose Change.org petition urging Starbucks to stop using a food coloring made from crushed bugs got fewer than 7,000 signatures. “But the media coverage was pretty widespread and led to a relatively quick decision from Starbucks to switch to a non-animal-based coloring.”
So what makes one petition more successful than another? “There are free tips and guides for everyone right on Change.org,” says Pulin. “The main advice I have is to tell an authentic, compelling story where your ask is realistic, the timeline is clear, and you are clear why someone signing your petition can actually make a difference. For animal campaigns, a compelling photo is especially important. Then share it on your social networks, notify reporters, and constantly – but politely – try to engage with the decision-maker to make sure they see it as a way you’re bringing concerns to them rather than approaching it antagonistically.”
Oh, and after your victory, don’t forget to do what Robin Merritt will do this weekend: celebrate!