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July 29, 2009

Community’s campaign attracts huge numbers

Last weekend thousands turned out to protest at Diageo’s decision to close the Johnnie Walker’s plant in Kilmarnock.  Within two weeks of Diageo’s announcement, the community had spontaneously organised a grass roots campaign part of which, an online petition, has attracted 10,000 signatures from all over the world.  This local campaign illustrates how powerful these new media tools can be

Kate Higgins, TfN

AS a luddite at heart, I struggle to keep up with technology. But events – Obama’s presidential campaign and Iranian post elec¬tion protests – have shown even me the power and potential of new media for campaigning, mobilizing, engaging and involv¬ing. And such tools are now being deployed to great effect in Kilmarnock’s campaign to save 700 jobs and the world famous Johnnie Walker’s plant from closure.

In just 16 days, the community has spontaneously created a grass¬roots campaign. The local MSP and Kilmarnock Fe launched a petition just two days after Dia¬geo’s announcement: the online version has attracted an incredible 10,000 signatures of support from all over the world. A resourceful local set up a campaign website ¬ and a group on Facebook has attracted 4,500 members in the same pe¬riod. Cartoonist Malky McCor¬mack produced inspiring artwork now on display on T-shirt.s and posters all over Ayrshire and Scot¬land. Formula One fans have been asked for support while a local band is taking petitions and T¬shirts to their gigs at Speyfest. The council has organised a march and rally on Sunday 26 July at Ipm which will attract thousands.

If Diageo didn’t realise it had a fight on its hands well it kens noo. Hence two of its global executives flew halfway round the world to explain the inexplicable. Scottish and UK Government support for the plants and workers in Kil¬marnock and Glasgow has been swift and unequivocal while CBI Scotland bleated that this was no way to treat a successful multi na¬tional company if we wanted more of them to invest in Scotland.

Which totally misunderstands why people are so outraged and shocked – Johnnie Walker whisky belongs not to Diageo but to Scot¬land and specifically to Kil¬marnock. Many Scots might not ever have tasted it, for ironically it’s hard to get here and expensive too. Yet it is the world’s leading brand whisky. Walk into a bar or hotel anywhere in the world and there will be a bottle on the gantry bearing the legend “Kilmarnock, Scotland”. Artists as diverse as Leonard Cohen, the Streets and Lee Ann Womack have penned songs about it, the central charac¬ter in Kafka on the Shore is based on Johnnie Walker and there is even a West Wing episode featur¬ing the whisky. You can have it red, black, blue, gold or green and last year Diageo sold £lbillion worth. It is this proprietorial sense of pride, combined with concern for the future of a small town los¬ing its biggest employer, that has resulted in such a collective out¬pouring of disgust at the closure plan.

All this should interest the vol¬untary sector. Particularly the suc¬cessful deployment of web and new media platforms to reach and engage a broad audience and gen¬erate a grassroots campaign in a short space of time. The voluntary sector was in the vanguard of such activity with Make Poverty His¬tory, yet it all seemed to fizzle out after the G8 summit at Gleneagles.

Some of the UK’s biggest charities increasingly use such tools to raise money, inform campaigners and involve supporters, but few smaller ones are, despite their cost-effectiveness and relative simplicity to set up and use.

The voluntary sector is normally good at being nimble, at adapting swiftly and particularly at leading the way. Yet new technology has caught it napping – many charities don’t even have a website let alone a social networking pres¬ence. Internal debate still tends to question the need rather than pre¬sume such platforms as a starting point for successful engagement. And it means we are being left be¬hind.

It is partly demographic: chari¬ties in Scotland tend to be popu¬lated by people like me who prefer aural communication and the writ¬ten word. But if this luddite can get it, anyone can. You don’t need to understand the technology but you do need to be clear about what you want it to achieve. New media tools are simply communication channels and could be a relatively cheap and easy way of reaching new audiences and involving them in organisations’ work, particu¬larly younger people. Adopting the ostrich approach to modern tech¬nology might well be comforting but how long before it turns many voluntary organisations into dodos?