Our Managing Director, Martina Quinn, attended a workshop on ‘Campaigning on Migration’ yesterday, as part of The Road to Marriage Equality summer school.  Here, she shares what she learned… 

The Road to Marriage Equality summer school is aimed at giving non-profit organisations from across Europe a master class in campaigning and influencing social change.  Yesterday, I went along to a workshop on ‘Campaigning on Migration’, led by expert panellists from Ireland, the UK and the USA, including:

The aim was to explore how learnings from last year’s successful Yes Equality campaign can be applied to the issue of migration.  The speakers – not surprisingly – made their points in the context of the current migrant crisis, the recent Brexit vote, and the perceived growth of anti-immigrant sentiment and extreme right movements across Europe and the USA.

Here are some of the points that stuck with me (with a bias towards points of relevance to PR and comms!):

Successful Campaigns Prioritise Communications

Frank Sharry spoke of how America’s Voice has prioritised comms, hiring and training Communications Officers in regional locations across the States and developing a sophisticated communications strategy, focused on three key areas:

  1. Mobilising and expanding their existing supporter base (i.e. turning sympathisers into activists).
  2. Transforming sceptics into supporters.
  3. Defining and marginalising opponents, so that most people begin to view their opponents as a threat to national values.

I found the last point particularly interesting: Frank spoke about building public acceptance that migration and diversity are fundamental characteristics of the USA’s national identity.  If a majority of the public get behind this idea, those inciting racism and xenophobia start to be perceived as a threat to national values.

Values and Emotions are More Persuasive than Facts

Veteran journalist Paddy Smyth spoke of how there’s a “truthiness” to scaremongering stories about migrants negatively impacting on hospital and housing waiting lists.  Even when voters are presented with facts directly contradicting this, they often choose to overlook them.

Tim Dixon gave a really insightful presentation, highlighting how attitudes are shaped by identity – and identity is shaped by local and national factors.  Therefore, global campaigns have little impact on individual voters.

According to Tim, people vote based on what they value and feel, as opposed to the “hard facts” presented to them.  Case in point: the recent Brexit vote!

One of the key points made by Tim was the value of personal stories that people can relate to.  We can change people’s attitudes to migrants by sharing the personal stories behind why individual refugees fled their home or how migrants are integrating into local communities (the popularity of stories about migrants in Ireland getting involved in local GAA clubs springs to mind!).

Brian Killoran of the Immigrant Council spoke of the need for migration to be accepted as a “positive reality”, and for political discourse to move away from a hard-line, defensive narrative (i.e. keeping migrants out, deportations, etc.) to a positive one.

Public Opinion Research is Essential

Almost all panellists highlighted the importance of effective and sustained market research when it comes to successful campaigning.

Frank Sharry spoke of how polling conducted in the early days of America’s Voice was actually found to have negative consequences: the way questions were framed left respondents feeling anxious and uninformed, and questioning if they themselves were racist.  Subsequent focus groups and polling helped America’s Voice find a middle ground.

Both Frank and Tim Dixon outlined how the research conducted by their respective organisations has come to a similar conclusion: “middle-ground” voters want to see order and fairness in migration policy.  They’re motivated by questions like “How do we exert control / manage this process?”: if there’s no sense of control, it undermines their sense of compassion and justice.

Interestingly, Tim Dixon said the research conducted by Purpose Europe is showing that reports of right-wing extremism and anti-migrant sentiment are exaggerated.  The numbers of people with cosmopolitan views (younger, better educated, living in cities) are growing, he said, and – in almost all countries – a majority believes more should be done to address the refugee criss and their country should accept refugees.  Prejudice is actually in decline – BUT extremists are louder and better organised than in the past.

Migrant Organisations in Ireland Need to Collaborate to Effect Change

According to Brian Killoran, campaigning on migration in Ireland is still an underdeveloped area: despite excellent campaigns run by individual organisations here in the past, there aren’t really examples of high-level, unified campaigns on the scale of Yes Equality.

Salome Mbugua highlighted how migrants themselves are often under-represented in campaigns.

The consensus from the panel was that future campaigns must involve multilateral stakeholders, including migrant voices.

Get Neutral Voices Involved in Myth-Busting

One final point to highlight – which came from a member of the audience (representing the Irish Refugee Council) – was that neutral voices have a key role to play in campaigns about migration.  Sceptics will remain sceptical of statements from organisations that are very obviously pro-migrant.  As such, it’s important to involve lots of groups and individuals form outside the sector – to provide the “neutral voice”.

The Road to Marriage Equality summer school is running for two more days.  You can follow proceedings from the summer school on Twitter.