What politicians and brands can learn from online petitions

The recent Federal election saw more pollies than ever take to social media and online petitions to show engagement, Karen Skinner takes us through the hits and misses of both parties as well as major brands

It has been an obsession of many media types to watch how politicians used online tools and platforms to communicate during the election.

In recent memory, we can all think of politicians who would’ve dismissed, ignored, even derided engaging on platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Change.org – shunning them instead for traditional media outlets or local grassroots events. Now, that’d be unthinkable.

Karen Skinner change.org

On the journey politicians have taken, from wilful ignorance to Snapchatting their lunch and advertising on Grindr, there are several lessons for brands. Both politicians and brands can be targeted by online petitions and, if handled deftly, this provides an opportunity for engagement to bring them closer to voters / their customers.

malcolm turnbull social media memes change.org

Online petitions hold a significant unique proposition: they allow MPs and brands to show they’re listening and engaging with a specific issue and the people who care about that issue.

Other platforms can just be exploited for use purely as broadcasting platforms: three word slogans or a brand’s tagline can just be parrotted because they control the content. Or worse, a brand can give the image of engaging with specific concerns, when they clearly all come from an automated bot. Worse still, the brand lies and promises responses aren’t automated, as ASOS did, to much hilarity.

asos r2d2 2

Authenticity is key here – the public now smells a bot quicker than a rat. Trust is built because a petition comes from a genuine person – not a robotic politician or brand bot.  It consolidates all online support for a major ask that people are passionate about.

A single response to a petition can reach hundreds of thousands of people, as Bill Shorten and Richard Di Natale discovered when they responded to Brigitte’s 222k-strong Change.org petition asking to keep pap smears and pathology free. “Thank you for hearing us Mr Shorten” was one of the signer’s responses to Shorten’s engagement.

bill shorten petition response healthcare

There’s a golden lesson for brands here. Those who lean-in early avoid or mitigate a media crisis. Those who bide their time or ignore are playing a high-risk, outdated game of strategic silence.

An example is AAMI insurance. For three years, it blocked an insurance claim from Nasser, a dad to two disabled children, following a nasty car crash. It ignored his appeals. Exasperated, Nasser began a Change.org petition. Through sharing his personal story and building a community of 96K signers, Nasser was able suggest actions to his signers to keep the pressure on AAMI.

When they finally could ignore the pressure no longer, AAMI responded on his petition, agreeing to pay the claim. Peter Stanley, a petition signer, commented saying: “Good on you, AAMI for doing the right thing. That affects my choice of insurer rather than advertising.”

Nasser Zahr's petition for AAMI to accept his claim to help care for his two disabled children achieved 96,893

Nasser Zahr’s petition for AAMI to accept his claim to help care for his two disabled children achieved 96,893 signatures

A similar brand win happened for Coles and Woolworths when mother Kelly Winton petitioned both to ask for disabled trolleys to cater to children like her son. When the supermarkets agreed to her request, Kelly pressed the ‘victory’ button on her petition, but responding “well done” or the like, as a brand, isn’t enough; today’s tech-savvy socialgoers know when they’re being fobbed off; when Keith petitioned Domino’s asking them to stop paying below minimum wage, Domino’s response convinced few petition signers.

James Willis wrote: “More Damage Control! Keep boycotting Domino’s Pizza!” Shane Alderton wrote: “Misses the point, really”

dominos change org petitions

Previously politicians could ignore online petitions, but it was a different story this time around. Every major party leader bar one responded to an online petition, ranging from Richard Di Natale using a petition to launch a policy on a sugar tax on soft drinks to Barnaby Joyce announcing a half a billion-dollar relief package for farmers on the petition of a 16-year-old daughter of a dairy farmer.

Although the exception was Malcolm Turnbull, senior politicians in his cabinet, including Health Minister Sussan Ley and Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, did lean in on issues such as re-thinking the backpacker tax and making life-saving diabetes drugs freely available.

Turnbull, though, does stick out as a non-responder. He talks a lot about innovation but unless his online actions match his words, the public may see his words as empty rhetoric. There’s a lesson here for company CEOs: unless customer engagement is a top-down approach, it’ll feel hollow.

The advice to protect your reputation online in the age of the petition is identical for brands and for pollies: don’t ignore it and hope it’ll go away.

Lean in sooner rather than later with a response. Use your right of reply like you would on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t sound like a robot. Make it someone’s job to be responsible for checking what comes up online.taco bell emoji petition

It’s also worth mentioning that brands can use petitions to innovate too, and they seem to do it best when asking for emojis – see Taco Bell winning a taco emoji, and Bodyform petitioning for Femojis. It’s the cuter end of innovation, granted, but real innovation starts with one action: listening.

Karen Skinner is the head of Change.org Australia @changeaus


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