Let’s Make Some Noise!

How to use media, both traditional and non, to get your message out

Cause-based non-profit organizations face marketing challenges similar to those of any other organization: they must continually deliver their messages to a growing audience in an attempt to influence behaviour. And they have the same tool box on hand to do so.

There is a difference, however, when the audience isn’t mass consumers but a large and powerful organization such as a government. That was the challenge confronting an environmental coalition in 2008 as it faced the deadline for the government of B.C. to ratify an agreement that would create the Great Bear Rainforest conservation area and park, a 1.2-million-hectare swath of old-growth forest and rivers.

The Problem
Greenpeace, ForestEthics, the Sierra Club of BC and several other conservation groups had reached an agreement in 2006 with the B.C. government, First Nations and logging operations to protect the Great Bear and establish sustainable logging practices in the area. The agreement signalled a new era of 
collaboration, but as the March 2009 deadline for ratification approached, the deal had yet to be signed. Beset on one side by more aggressive conservationists who termed the agreement a sellout and on the other by a foot-dragging government, the environmental coalition realized it would have to mobilize public opinion if it wanted to save the agreement.

The Solution
In the fall of 2008, the partners embarked on a campaign to influence the government to “keep its promise” (the slogan they adopted). They had little more than four months to build a noticeable groundswell of public support for the agreement.

The coalition launched a marketing campaign that included traditional techniques such as advertising and public relations but also included a big social media component, which until then had only played a very small role in marketing campaigns.

The goal was to get signatures on a petition that would demonstrate citizen demand for ratification, but tactics wouldn’t be limited to sending armies of people into the streets to get signatures. Instead, the coalition had social media expert Darren Barefoot of Capulet Communications set up a Facebook group and a photo contest on Flickr and reach out to more than 40 B.C. bloggers to help pass on the message.

The coalition had to show that the supporters were real. So it insisted that everyone who joined the petition drive had to leave a verifiable email address and send an email message to the government.

As a result, the “keep your promise” message echoed throughout the web in B.C. More than 16,000 people signed the petition and left email addresses. This in turn drew a lot of largely sympathetic local and national press coverage in newspapers and on television, which in turn created a snowball effect. On March 31, 2009, the agreement was ratified.

But the results didn’t stop there. Having noticed the effect of social media in that campaign, the national conservation partnership of Mountain Equipment Co-op and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society are now emulating it on a national scale.


• Social media, public relations or advertising alone cannot create a groundswell. They must be combined in an integrated approach.

• Methods must reflect the culture. Since each media channel has its own culture, techniques must be tailored to it specifically.

• The reason matters. People will spread the word about something they see as important to their world view. They won’t if it is perceived as one-sided or blatantly commercial. n