One of the classic public relations techniques is the petition – securing a body of signatures to demonstrate the weight of the campaign issue and to act as a news story that generates further interest and clout. (See for example, the 1786 Leeds Woollen Workers’ petition or the 1628 Petition of Right)
A current online petition against road pricing shows how this technique remains an effective campaign tool. Located on the 10 Downing Street e-petitions website, this particular petition is expected to attract between 500,000 and 1 million “signatures” by its closing date of 20 February.
Momentum behind this campaign is shown by the rapid rate of action – participation had doubled in a week reaching 50,000 by Christmas, 112,000 on 6 January, 190,000 by 10 January – and today, that number is 330,000.
Launched in November 2006, the government’s site enables anyone to create a petition. It is intended to replace the traditional presentation of paper petitions to 10 Downing Street,. As such it is an opportunity to record support for a particular position, but is not intended to be a debating forum or opinion poll.
Support for this poll is fuelled by coverage by traditional print and broadcast media, as well as interest online. It has been added to the Wikipedia entry on road pricing and is mentioned on over 1100 websites according to the Association of British Drivers whose member, Peter Roberts began the petition emailing about 30 contacts in November.
It will be interesting to see how the government responds – as a true measure of the campaign’s success and of the e-petition site. Organisations and individuals will increasingly use electronic petitions and similar online techniques to maximise support for their issues.
Crable and Vibbert (1985) said: Issues are created when one or more human agents attaches significance to a situation or perceived ‘problem’. Today issues can be created instantly and rapidly gain support. This is helpful when public relations practitioners seek to motivate active publics, but a challenge when faced with online opponents.