Boycott BP? Here’s a Better Idea…

As an organizing tactic, boycotts can be extremely effective. Think of the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott of the 1950s during the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, or the boycott against South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s. But as for this boycott against BP, I guarantee it will have little to no effect on the company.

Here’s why. Saul Alinsky was probably the greatest grassroots tactician (his 1970 book Rules for Radicals is a classic and I teach it in my graduate level communications course). When writing about tactics, Alinsky stresses the importance of using the strength of the enemy against itself. In the case of the BP boycott, the organizers are going up against that strength. Basically they’re going to be completely outgunned. BP is huge and any kind of boycott will be so diffused as to not have any economic impact on the company. Game over.

So what is BP’s strength and how can you use it against them? You have to strike where BP is weak. Their strength is their size, so attack the outer edges of their company (like the Visigoths and other “barbarians” did against the Roman empire 1500 years ago). There are thousands of businesses that are reliant on BP money and who can be “villanized” for their participation in this while fiasco (peripheral as it may be). By putting pressure on the “outer edges” of the BP universe, you can put pressure on BP itself (again, like the Romans).

For example, if I was organizing this effort, I would avoid targeting their network of service station owners (too sympathetic an audience). Instead, I would aim straight at the PR agencies and Washington, DC lobbyists (and others) that that are shilling for BP during this disaster. Everyone hates PR spinners and lobbyists, so hit them instead. How would BP’s PR agency like to have picketers show up at their office every day for a month, decrying their culpability and urging existing clients to drop them. Do you think a DC-based lobbying firm wants to have light shone on their relationship with the company? Probably not.


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