First of all, keep in mind that many people have great ideas; the real challenge is carrying them out. So by all means get excited about great ideas that flit into your head, but realize that's only the start: the hard (and even more exciting) part is yet to come.
Here are some principles of a good action or idea:
- It evokes reactions in your audience by pushing them out of their comfort zone.
- It makes you cringe. Tasteless ideas are often the best ones. Don’t reject them!
- It makes you laugh or experience a strong emotion—a sure sign it'll do that for others.
- It hasn't been done—at least not exactly like this.
- It should make a bit of sense. A bit is enough; more important is for it to make you laugh or cringe!
- Don't get bogged down in principles! Some ideas will violate all of them.
Before anything, of course, you should know what your goal is, what you want to focus on. What specifically do you want to change about the world? What do you want to fix? Think big and think small—that is, imagine the glorious future in which it's all fixed, and think of a way to get started towards that. Write it down.
The easiest way to generate ideas is to rip off actions that others have done. A couple of places to find great actions:
- Actipedia: a giant, user-generated, user-ranked, and searchable database of creative activist projects.
- Beautiful Trouble: a more curated list ofcase studies, principles, tactics, and theories.
Just browse around and see if there's something you might want to repeat and improve.
For a more freeform approach to brainstorm, here are exercises for getting your juices flowing. The "Target" means the specific entity (company, etc.) you're attacking. The "Issue" is the problem that you’re addressing.
- Think of phrases and images used by your target, that you can subvert to convey your own message instead, perhaps ironically.
- What are some of your target's tactics that you could appropriate as your own? Are they known for advertising, selling, or behaving in a particular way? How can you appropriate that?
- What are the metaphors, hackneyed idioms, etc. around the issue and the target? These can be fun to play with and twist and mess up.
- What are some negative aspects of your target? How can you "accidentally" highlight them, as if you weren't very good at PR?
- What related news stories are going on right now? These can be good hooks for actions; if something is already in the news, journalists may find it easier to cover it.
- What's ironic about the situation? What are the contradictions it embodies? How can you bring these forward in a funny way?
- What cultural symbols (e.g. Tax Day, Goldilocks, Santa Claus, cash registers) relate to your target? For example, if you’re doing something around food justice, you have Ronald McDonald, the Jolly Green Giant, and numerous other corporate brands into which tremendous resources have already been poured. A symbol needn’t be only a thing; if the specific issue is government subsidies for big agribusiness, you might think about Tax Day.
- Can you take things literally that aren't supposed to be taken literally?
- For an action, what are some potential actors? What could be your stage? Who could be your audience?
- What actions have been done—around this issue, or any other—that you could copy/adapt?
- Play game in which you think of stupid, unbelievable, or inspiring headlines you've seen. Collect a list of these on a piece of paper, and select a few and try to think as a group of how to make them better, how to create even better headlines, and how to get them to pertain to the issue that you want to publicize.
- Alternately, try a game in which you come up with fictitious headlines directly related to your campaign goals—headlines that could be instructive and help promote your message. Then, figure out how to make those headlines happen.
- Again, plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize: think about others' actions and how you could appropriate them, or parts of them, with your particular issue in mind.
- Before settling on a final form, try pantomiming your action—running through the scenario not only in your head, but in play-acting. This can give you new ideas.
After you've come up with a scheme (see the "Brainstorming suggestions" above for some tips on getting the juices flowing), you'll have to start figuring out how to carry it out. Here are some pointers for developing and executing a press-getting project around an activist cause. Note that every project is different, so this list should be taken with a grain of salt.
- Start simple! It takes a lot of time and energy to do one of these projects, so don’t bite off too much all at once. What’s the absolute minimum your project needs to succeed? Is it a video? A press release? Whatever that first step is, focus on that. If your project requires too many many parts for you to pull it off right now, it may not be quite the right idea. Back to the drawing board!
- On the other hand, once you’ve got a good simple core, don't be afraid to add complexity; just expect that some of it to be ignored or forgotten. Often the complexity can grab journalists' attention, even if it doesn’t get reported on (“a sophisticated hoax” is a well-worn news phrase).
- When in doubt, just do something. So long as it makes some sense, better to do something than to get paralyzed thinking of a big project. Don't be too ambitious all at once, if you find it slowing you down. You can always get it right on the second try, and you’ll learn a whole lot in the process.
- Also, don’t get so caught up in the issue you forget to keep it really funny, weird, and inventive. The goal is to get people laughing at evildoers. Consider including funny elements—costumes, weird effects, etc.—but nothing that doesn't make sense and/or that tips off too clearly your target that it's a fake (this is a very big gray area, obviously). The idea is to make funny stuff that a secondary audience (viewing the video of the action, or reading your press releases) will enjoy and understand, but that will not clobber the primary audience over the head so that they chase you into the parking lot. (That happened to the Yes Men, once. It wasn’t pretty.)
- That said, you might want to consider connecting with other people who work on the goal your project is concerned with and brainstorming or consulting with them, maybe even at the beginning. The Action Switchboard can help with that. People who spend all their time thinking about your issue may be in a good position to help make sure your project leads to the goal. One reason to make sure it fully makes sense is so that it continues to carry your enthusiasm and energy, of which you'll need a certain amount! You'll have to have faith it's truly worth doing. And unless you’re a religious or free-market fanatic, or funded by a big corporation, that means you’ll have to keep thinking about it.
A few things you might want to think about once or twice at some point:
- Make sure you're not accidentally making the enemy's point for them, or giving the enemy too much obvious fuel. If you are, often a very slight rejiggering is all the idea needs so that you’re still undermining your target, not just adopting their voice.
- Make sure your project reveals something false in the news, or highlights something under-reported, and isn’t just about something everyone knows anyhow. If it is about something everyone knows, it should reveal it in a new light, or at the very least amplify it.
- Make sure that your project somehow feeds into the longer campaign goal of your activist partner, if you have one.
- Make sure the project doesn’t add anything false to the news for long, unless it’s completely innocuous. Creating lasting fake stories is what the advertising, PR, and lobbying industries are all about.
- Try to pick the most powerful, nefarious target you can find—certainly make sure it’s much more powerful than yourself or those you’re working with. Never go after those who weaker, or people helping those weaker, even if you think that they’re wrong, stupid, or both.
Once everyone feels good about the overall plan (which you should sketch out as explicitly as you can, even if you know it’ll change in the future), start working on its various components at once. Stress, first, those components that are essential for the project to get carried out. For a fake conference appearance, the list of necessities might look like:
- getting the invite to the conference, or figuring out how to do so,
- registering and setting up the fake website,
- collecting emails of journalists to send press releases to,
- writing the text of any speech or press releases (a first draft immediately is a good idea if possible, as revisions will usually help),
- setting up any fake press conferences that have to happen,
- essential costumes.
When you feel the basics are underway, you can work on extra components to make it even better—e.g.
- a Powerpoint presentation,
- an animation,
- a video,
- more funny costumes,
- a press conference if it's not a key component above,
- a Video News Release.
Follow up on the action with the "reveal" press release (see section about that). This is what distinguishes this kind of fakery from the multi-billion-dollar public relations industry fakery: we reveal the ruse! You might actually want to sketch out your press release first; that can help you make sure that your idea makes sense. Or you can start writing "reveal" releases in your head as a test to see whether embryonic ideas are worth developing. A few tips on the reveal release:
- Use the reveal to drive home the points you want to make and to offer spokespeople for media appearances to media sources.
- Also, make sure you’ve prepared a clear “ask,” what you’re asking people who hear about your action to do; this will normally be on a separate campaign page or website your “reveal” press release points to.
- You might want to wait a few hours, or even a night, between the action and the "reveal," to give journalists a chance to do some legwork to figure out who did it and how. Journalists enjoy legwork, and they enjoy breaking stories ahead of everyone else.
- Never let any false information you created remain out there longer than a couple of hours, unless it’s really innocuous. Your goal is to cut through falsehood, not create more!
There’s more, of course! But the key is: get started!
It's good not to get too attached to tactics. It's a conundrum: when dreaming up an action, and carrying it out, you may have to make yourself believe that this action is the one to really, finally, put an end to the injustice it's trying to highlight. But once you've done the action, it's important to remember that, well, it's just an action, one among many, and now you have to give it its chance to live or die at its own pace.
It's like setting off fireworks: once you've done your action of kindling the fuse, it's really best to stand back and let it take its course. The metaphor of course isn't great; in your case you, yourself, are part of the fireworks, and come in at the proper moment to send out your press release, answer questions from reporters (if you're one of the people cited), and possibly do damage control. But insofar as you can only steer the thing after it's launched, it's best to be ready to think of the next thing, and not get too attached to what just happened.
One symptom of over-attachment is a desire to make the action live longer by redoing it the next day, or extending it with new inflections just thought of on the spur of the moment—almost always an error.
Another is to fret too much about how the press release is put together. It's necessary to give whoever's sending out your press release the autonomy to do it without tons of meddling—even if things may be missed.
Another is worrying too much about getting credit; you should get credit, but also know that you are very likely to do another action again soon, and that it's the whole experience that's valuable, not the notch in your arrow.
Warning: the below gets wonky! It's the way the Yes Men have used collaborative writing tools to keep track of projects, but there are many other ways to do so. The goal of your notes is to end up with something that anyone working on the project can understand and plug their work into. We think a good recipe for taking (and then using) notes is roughly as follows.
Warning: This can be quite an intensive, exhausting process. It’s an iterative process; especially after the initial brainstorm, the note-taker/organizer has to continuously update the files, change files to directories, etc., repeatedly. Whoever’s taking this on should get plenty of sleep the night before. It’s also recommended to have a certain level of OCD.
For the initial brainstorm itself:
- Create a doc in a shared directory—a directory that everyone in the brainstorm has access to. Name the doc something that communicates what it's about, like "a.m. brainstorm notes, april 4, 2011, john." If there's more than one notetaker, either use two different files, or both monitor the same file and take turns adding notes and fleshing out each other's notes.
- Jot down every idea that comes to mind in the brainstorm. Catch everything! Even stupid ideas should be noted, perhaps with a little symbol or note to indicate that they're stupid. Similarly, you might want to emphasize the best ideas, perhaps by putting them in bold or underlining them as you go along.
- As the brainstorm progresses and a plan begins to be fleshed out, try to note where ideas go, what part of the plan they refer to, etc. You can move ideas around, and put them into different parts of your document depending on how they fit in, but making quick notes in parentheses is just as good. (You can restructure later, after the brainstorm session is over.)
When you start phasing from brainstorming into working through a particular idea, rigorously organize the notes. (This can be done by someone other than the person/people who took the original notes, or by the same person/people. This person of course needs to have been present at the brainstorm.) Post-brainstorm note-organizing (i.e. project management) hints:
- Split off major chunks into separate files or folders. For example, if your project involves a website and a street action, make a separate folder for each. Then, in the website folder, make a separate document for each page that you know of—in those docs, collaborators will be able to flesh out text and design ideas. In the street-action folder, either put everything into one big file separated by headings (see below) or separate each heading section into a separate file - for example, "costuming needs," "filming needs," "enrolling participants," etc.
- Example: Suppose you have a file—say, “ProjectMordor - Video News Release”—that you’ve been taking lots of notes in, and now you want to turn it into a directory instead, so that you can have separate files for each aspect: script-writing, prop-assembling, shot-getting, etc. You can do this by creating a directory with a similar name (e.g. “ProjectMordor - VNR”), moving the text file into it and renaming it to “ProjectMordor - VNR overview,” and then splitting off parts as needed (e.g. to “ProjectMordor - VNR script,” “ProjectMordor - VNR shot list,” etc.).
- Within individual files, use "headings" liberally. Your document might end up containing, say, five sections at heading level two, one of which contains three subheadings at heading level three. (That's just an example, of course - any combo is feasible.) In some tools, this will enable you to generate a table of contents at the top of the file.
- Make sure everyone involved is aware of the evolving directory structure and how it all works, and knows where to plug in new work. One good way to do this is to keep the notes on the screen as you go along; this also has the advantage of keeping everyone focused, so long as the notes are fairly clear.
- You (or someone else) may occasionally want to use a whiteboard to take more graphic notes—e.g. to make a little diagram of the parts of the project; strategies can get quite complicated, and sometimes only a drawing will adequately do. If you do use a whiteboard and evolve a strategy there, make sure to transfer the concepts back into the notes afterwards! You can also just snap a picture of the whiteboard and upload it to the shared folder.
- If necessary, add “stub” (blank) files or directories for people to add their notes to, to make it easier for them.
- If necessary, meticulously go through every single line of the notes file(s) to make sure everything is transferred into the new organized notes. If you do NOT transfer a note from the notes files into the new documents, note that in the notes file - cross it out or italicize and make a note to that effect - e.g. "this idea was rejected."
When people add something important to the notes or produce some element of the plan, they should notify everyone in the group. If you've divided into subgroups to tackle separate aspects of the project, then just notify everyone in the relevant subgroup, unless you think it could be inspiring to folks in other subgroups as well.
As people write new versions of documents meant for production (press releases, webpages, etc.), it's often good to save off old versions so that you can look back or even go back to an old version if you go astray. (This happens all the time.) Ways to do this include:
- create a subfolder called "archive" and save old versions named, for example, "press release v. 20110405b" - then keep working on the current version, whatever it's called - for example "press release current version"
- other people prefer working in new files each time - when saving off a new version, calling it "press release v. 20110405b" or just "press release v. 6" and working on it in the directory. (Andy doesn't like doing it that way, but that's just him.)
- because saving off an old version is a bit complicated, you might just want to:
- copy the text you're about to modify to the clipboard,
- then paste it at the bottom of the doc, into a new section entitled, for example, "press release v. 20110405b"
- to avoid confusion you might also want to change the font of the copied archived section to gray so it's clear it's not current text to be worked on.
Note: when splitting off into small groups, each group will need its own note-taker. as for the organization of the notes—putting notes into its own folder, etc., and organize the notes as above—you will wish to do that only at the point - probably the end of the day or days - when the final projects have been determined and steps are ready to be taken forward to making the project happen.
If you want to get good, try this relay race:
Each group (of two) should have one member who knows the tool and one who does not know the tool. ONLY the person who does not know the tool can touch the keyboard.
- Create a directory (aka folder, aka collection). Give it a name that tells us what your project’s about. (You can come up with a silly project for now.)
- Create a subdirectory. Name it "Images."
- Upload any image into your Images subdirectory.
- Create a new subdirectory called "management"
- Create a new document in your project's main directory called "Roles."
- Come up with three job titles and write them down. Under each, write three or four words, of any sort.
- Under the third job title, link one of the words to the image you uploaded into your Images directory.
- Put each job title into heading 4 style
- Above the top one, type "job titles" on a line, and put it in "heading 3" style—this time using only your keyboard (not the mouse; you can use the mouse to figure out the shortcuts, however)
- Under all that text in the doc, type "Duties for everyone," put it in heading 3 style, and type in something that everyone should always do.
- At top of doc, in heading 2 style, type "current version"
- At the bottom of the document, type “Old Versions” on a line and put it in heading 1
- At the top of the document, add an extra line, turn it into "normal" style, and generate a table of contents! This should list all the headers you've put into the document so far.
- Copy everything below and including "current version" and above "Old Versions," and paste it under "Old Versions." Change "current version" to "Version #1" (should still be in Heading 2)
- Change all the text below the Version #1 heading to be gray rather than black, so you're not confused about which is the current version
- Regenerate the table of contents
- Then, share your folder (the one you created to contain your document) with the full group. Include a message bragging about what a Collaborative Writing Tool Master you are.