Insights
4 min Read
October 7, 2011

The Communications of Occupy Wall Street

The messages coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement are vague and incoherent. For now, I maintain that this is more to its advantage than disadvantage.

Let me back up just a little.

We haven’t spent that much time discussing Occupy Wall Street at Big Duck. One strategist had a brief email rant about how maddening its lack of focus is, that it “reflects all the worst stereotypes of the millennial generation–navel-gazing, purposeless.”

She’s not wrong. And she cited the Occupy Wall Street mission statement as proof:

Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.

No “ends” are listed.

A lack of clarity on the left (of which I am admittedly a part) is also not a new problem. I’ve got a few years on my colleague, and this has been one of my complaints for years: “I’m totally with you ideologically. Now can we please get our act together?” (I usually use a crass alternative to the word act.)

Here’s why I’m not sure the lack of a clear message matters all that much (at least for now): Wall Street is a convenient bogeyman. And standing up to Wall Street (whatever Wall Street is in actuality) is something pretty much all movements can get behind.

Occupy Wall Street can therefore be all things to all people. And there’s a direct (or indirect) line between the issues people are angry about and the framing device that is Wall Street. Examples (complete with imaginary quotes from protesting millennials!):

  • Unemployment. “If rich people and corporations paid more taxes, there would be more money to create jobs.”
  • Foreclosures. “Banks, including those that received bailout funds, have foreclosed upon my grandmother.”
  • Environment. “Oil companies own our politicians who continue to refuse to regulate greenhouse gasses.”
  • Health care. “Insurance companies put profit above care, and people are dying because of it.”

This is just a sampling, and in all of these cases, people understand that Wall Street stands in for rich people, corporations, banks, traders, the powerful. I’m not defending the merit of the arguments (although in most cases, I suppose I could). I’m simply pointing out how easy it is to blame Wall Street, no matter the issue.

Once you drill down to specific issues, the people Occupying Wall Street may actually disagree. Someone who believes there should be a freeze on all foreclosures may also think that eliminating all student debt is utter nonsense.

In the meantime, their clearest message is a negative, yet unifying, one: Down With Wall Street. A positive message hasn’t yet taken form.

(Perhaps that’s what the “We are the 99%” is about. I would argue that “Occupy Wall Street” is stronger as a message goes. And the more I write here, the bigger this topic becomes, so maybe the comparison is a post for another day.)

Occupy Wall Street is both reminiscent and sort of the opposite of the Hope/Change theme of the 2008 Obama Campaign. The opposite because Hope/Change is a positive message. The same because Obama supporters could project whatever meaning they wanted onto Hope/Change. Whatever you think of President Obama, most of us would probably agree that Hope/Change was an effective campaign message.

So yes, Occupy Wall Street’s lack of coherent messaging may frustrate some of us, even those of us sympathetic to the overall cause (whatever it is!). But more and more people are heading down to Wall Street every day, and you don’t get masses like this if the word isn’t somehow getting out and working.

Heck, they’re even hosting Yom Kippur service in Zuccotti Park. (I have to admit that I kind of like the Fiddler on the Wall Street Bull.)

Finally, a warning for nonprofiteers…

A mass movement approach–i.e. vague platitudes, unclear goals, and general inspiration–to communications almost certainly won’t work for you. Most nonprofits do specific work on specific issues. Inspiring donations and activism on behalf of your organization requires more than generalities.

You still need to define your positioning and personality, get clear about your audiences, and hit them with some specific urgency to get them to take action.

But back to Occupy Wall Street, what’s next? Who knows? Eventually, they’ll probably need to define their aims a bit more clearly.

Or, perhaps more realistically, after feeding on each other’s energy for inspiration, the individual issue movements will splinter off and keep up the momentum, clarifying their messaging for their specific audiences. That would be the ideal anyway.

In the meantime, this whole Occupy Wall Street thing is really something. I may not know what, exactly, but it really is something.

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