While many grassroots advocacy efforts center around influencing lawmakers and the elected officials responsible for setting public policy, some groups have leveraged grassroots advocacy techniques to sway the internal policies of powerful corporations.
For years, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had been unsuccessfully lobbying pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of the pneumonia vaccine. It wasn’t until they ran a multi-channel, multi-phase, months-long public advocacy campaign that they had success. See what tactics they used to influence corporate policy and learn how you can use the same strategies to hit the tipping point for your organization’s most challenging issues.
The Doctors Without Borders Story
Pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under five, killing 2,500 kids a day. While vaccines to combat the disease are available, they are prohibitively expensive for many families, humanitarian organizations, and governments in developing countries.
Since there are the only two pharmaceutical companies in the world that manufacture the pneumonia vaccine, Doctors Without Borders launched a public advocacy campaign called “A Fair Shot” focused on convincing them both to lower their prices.
The campaign began with an online petition and an email campaign, both of which mobilized supporters to ask the pharma companies to change their policies for the pneumonia vaccine. The petition ran for nearly six months and collected over 400,000 signatures from 170 countries.
To maximize the impact of the petition, 80 MSF supporters showed up at the office of one of the pharmaceutical companies before their annual shareholder meeting in New York City. They delivered the petition inside of an infant crib, creating a striking visual reminder that infants and children are the primary population affected by high vaccine prices.
The online petition and the in-person actions that followed were effective in building an active supporter list and raising awareness about the inaccessibility of the pneumonia vaccine. Within a few months, one of the pharma companies agreed to lower their price for the vaccine to $9/child—down from close to $200/child—for all humanitarian organizations. The second company, however, was still not budging. Instead of giving up, or counting it as a win since one of the companies had acquiesced, MSF decided to escalate the pressure on the second company and launch a phone call campaign just for them.
On World Pneumonia Day (November 12, 2016), petition signers and MSF followers on social media used Phone2Action’s patch-through calling to make hundreds of calls to the pharmaceutical company’s office in the United States while other supporters from around the world manually dialed calls into their in-country offices, too. Just one day after their offices were flooded with phone calls, the company announced that it would match the other company’s price of $9/child.
Once the second company matched the other’s lowered price, A Fair Shot was deemed a huge success for Doctors Without Borders. But they are still working to get the price even lower—their goal is $5/child—and the campaign is still active.
Key takeaways from the success of A Fair Shot
Three things that Doctors Without Borders did in their “A Fair Shot” campaign stand out that you can do for your next grassroots advocacy campaign.
Combine online advocacy with strategically-timed in-person advocacy to maximize impact
By using innovative digital tools and strategically-timed in-person events, Doctors Without Borders amplified the overall effect of both efforts. They created engaging videos and animations for Facebook and Twitter, conducted email campaigns, posted Facebook and Periscope livestreams, organized live stunts on the streets of New York, London and other cities, and delivered handwritten letters to campaign targets. Their live stunts were timed for maximum impact–like right before a shareholder meeting—and leveraged the results of the petition that had been conducted online.
Build on momentum with a new tactic to address roadblocks
When Doctors Without Borders didn’t get the results they were hoping for from the petition, they switched gears and launched a phone call campaign. By acknowledging when they needed to try something else to increase the pressure, they were able to piggyback on the ground they had already gained. When a six-month long effort doesn’t yield the results you’re looking for, it’s tempting to give up on the whole campaign—but instead, they persevered and built on the momentum of their smaller successes.
Use messaging that relates the issue back to your advocates
Doctors Without Borders repeatedly referenced the negative consequences that a lack of access to pneumonia vaccine has on children and infants. While many of the supporters came from developed countries where accessibility isn’t a problem, the idea of helping children is relatable to most people. Even if your advocates don’t have a direct stake in your issue in their own lives, they will rally behind your cause if it’s positioned in a way that reaches them emotionally. You could be using the best online tools, but if your messaging is off, it won’t be a successful campaign.
CEOs or other public figures may not come up for re-election, but they can still be influenced by the public. Grassroots campaigns directed at decision-makers of all kinds can use Phone2Action tools such as patch-through calls, emails, and social media posts to apply pressure to leaders who have a vested interest in maintaining a positive public image for themselves and their organizations.
Interested in more advocacy success stories? Learn how the National Humanities Alliance mobilized supporters to send over 150,000 messages to Congress and the White House within a two-day period.
Ready to get started on your own campaign? Find out how your organization can use Phone2Action and schedule a demo today.
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