You can read about brainstorming, planning actions, writing funny, making websites, legal fun, video documentation, press work, and more. As the bottom of every page on our website urges you, just take this info and run with it!
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!
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.
So you want to create a hilarious website, press release, pamphlet, or something else—but you think you're just not funny at all. Well, writing (and being) funny can be taught. It's a whole thing, but here are a few quick ideas to get you started.
1. Make it a fun puzzle with a real payoff
You need to learn corporate-speak - get intimately familiar with it. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Read press releases, employee manuals, websites, and so on.
- Check out the PR campaigns of your target.
- Co-opt their dense, coded language.
Don't be afraid to see things from your opponent's perspective. Follow your opponent’s line of logic. It’ll take you far. Speak as them "for real", and do it right - as they would have to do if they were trying to speak clearly about the problem you’re addressing.
Being concise about the problem is key. If the problem you’re exposing is really clear, then your opponent’s argument is doomed.
2. Try not being funny
If you have a tendency to try to be funny or if you think funny means making jokes, take a step back. Sometimes joke-making is a perfect recipe for creating dry, overly satirical content that’s hard for the average human being to care about.
Don't be funny. Following Principle #1, Make it a Real Puzzle: Speak as your target. Fully inhabit their voice, and tell the story just as they would. Sincerity makes the best comedy. You may find yourself laughing and making others laugh, without even making a joke. This is a good sign. Then you can introduce little jokes here and there - but keep them subtle. Continue in their voice while accidentally getting your real, activist-y point across.
Here’s an example. In a press release from a big corporate restaurant chain, what if the CEO admits: "We must recognize that members of our waitstaff are part of the food chain, too." It's funny because the CEO is so clueless, but it can only be really funny in the context of a press release that comes from the restaurant chain’s point of view. This lets the line provoke a subtle, bottom-of-the-stomach laugh. In a ribald, over-the-top, unbelievable press release it would be just another goofy element lost in a sea of jokeyness.
3. Make your fake content (fake website, fake press release) believable.
Here are some principles for when you need to pass as your target:
- Be believable.
- Get noticed - grab your audience from the first moment they look at your release.
- Convey only essential information.
- Be funny and outrageous upon re-reading; once someone is in on the joke, then they can find your material funny (this is related to Principle #1).
All of these principles should remain in balance. Don’t sacrifice believability for the sake of getting noticed, and vice versa.
The absolute easiest way to make a satirical website is to copy your target’s site directly. Luckily, this is easy to do! You may need someone with some web experience to help, but this way you don’t need to start from scratch.
You’ll need to start by purchasing and hosting a domain, preferably one that looks a lot like your target’s real domain name.
Then can choose just to copy one page of your target’s website and link to your fake page. Or, you can copy the whole site and make changes to your favorite pages.
To copy just one page, use your browser's "Save As" feature and select "complete HTML." This is the easiest—saves the file but also saves all the links pointing to the original site. Edit the page and upload to your domain. (Also upload an index.html that resolves either to the target website or to your special release page.) Optionally, for a site that’s extremely simple (one page), this can be enough.
To copy the whole site, you'll need something like PageSucker or WebDevil to suck down whole site. Then you'll want to prune the site down to maybe 4-5 pages, and then edit those pages. This can be a lot of work, to make it work right.
As for the risks: your target may send you a meaningless legal threat known as a cease-and-desist letter, saying that they might sue you—which they might, but almost certainly won't, especially if your content does something subtly satirical—so that someone reading closely might understand that it’s fake.
For good measure, in the event of such a threat you can get pro bono legal help to respond to your target or otherwise advise you. The worst that can happen, probably, is that you’ll decide to take it down; this is very rarely necessary. (Note: we're not speaking as lawyers here.)
Jobjacking is a fun way insert a fun kind of madness into spaces where a certain way of acting or thinking is dominant and to mess with roles within a company, around consumption habits, or in any number of fun situations. Jobjacking can be done in real physical places, or in the “reality” of a fake website, press releases, and interviews.
You know those people asking you to sample some product for X, Y, or Z reasons? Why not become one? Some stores have a protocol for giving out samples, and some stores do not. Pick a product, make a fake "Demo Specialist" card for Company X, and either show up with the product or grab some off the shelf (you may need to pay for it). You could have some pre-printed media (like a brochure displaying the information about Company X that you'd like to highlight), a small folding table, maybe a uniform, and a confident attitude. You can breeze in and set up your table as if it’s your job, or you can ask for a manager and set up your table, then begin to inform the public about your product.
Suppose you dressed up in Wal-Mart gear and spoke to shoppers around the store about your store’s horrible health care and low wages. You might even share the photos of factories in China depicting the store’s working conditions. It’s worth noting that Wal-Mart is notoriously protective of their stores; they won’t even let painter Brendan O’Connell, who creates impressionistic paintings of Wal-Mart shelves, work openly in the store. So you might get thrown out of the store - in any case, you’ll want to plant a friend in the store to film the whole episode. “Imposter Wal-Mart worker thrown out for talking about labor conditions” could be a catchy story.
Comedians and artists have often used this sort of tactic in their work (it’s called acting). Activists can take a page out of their book by staging actions that are photogenic, funny, and well-documented. If your action is light-hearted and fun, you might not get thrown out of the store! Document it well, and share it widely online.
Take a look at Improv Everywhere’s action when people dressed like Best Buy Employees and helped people around in the stores. This kind of action requires lots of people and perhaps some rehearsal, but it can be a lot of fun. Just make sure your action has a clear point, and that you're ready to publicize it in the media—like when these folks did a whole musical number in a Target.
You can also jobjack in the digital world rather than the real world by creating a website or a press release. For instance, Company X has given a position to someone ridiculous! Such as: a kid becomes a train conductor, or a 14-year-old becomes cop for a day. You can publicize this fantastic story through a video news release or a website (see below!).
Here are the Yes Men's tips on crashing and getting invited to speak at conferences.
How can I attend a conference I'm not invited to?
So you've decided you want to hang out at a conference—out of masochism, or curiosity, or because you have a devious plan for what to do once you're inside.
First step: dress nicely. Visit your local thrift store and get a suit. (Shouldn't cost more than $20.) Get some fairly "nice" dress shoes (shouldn't cost more than $10 - nobody actually wants these things).
Second step: Just walk in the door, giving a friendly, confident wave to whoever's at the desk. Even if registration is required, they might not check that you've registered or that you're wearing a badge.
If you want to get a badge, or feel that you should have some credentials to get in the door, there will be probably be one of three situations you'll have to negotiate:
- There will be a table near the entrance that's full of badges all laid out nice and neatly. In that case you can just walk up, find a name, and say you're that person (and that you've forgotten your business cards). Take the conference materials you'll be graciously offered, along with the badge, and proceed inside.
- Another approach is to come to the table around midday (when a few tags are left), observe a tag, and then run out and print a few business cards. A sheet of pre-perforated cards and a copy shop will do the trick.
- There will be a table with a box on it, and a person behind the box. Then, you have to figure out what name to say. Perhaps you can adopt a heavy accent, say you need to register, and that your name is, for instance, Xzorpidquon. If you say it incomprehensibly enough, and with enough enthusiasm, the person behind the desk may help you by suggesting various names you might mean. Agree immediately with the first suggestion, especially if it matches your gender.
Once you have your badge, you can copy it quite easily by scanning it and reprinting it on the right color paper at your local copy store. Then you can get all your friends in!
Another way is to simply book a room next to the conference. Sometimes a conference does not use a whole hotel venue, and there might be a cheap room adjoining the conference you want to crash. For as little as a few hundred dollars, you may be able to book that room, and parasitically pretend you are part of the conference. Since you control that room, do as you like with it!
How can I speak at a conference?
Option: Just find an opportunity and take the microphone
Scout the venue before or during the event. Try to determine if there is a sound guy, or if the sound system is on or can be turned on. If the sound system is left on, then there you go: just take the podium and say your part. Make it snappy and short!
Alternately, you can bring a briefcase style battery powered PA with you and take the stage whenever, without relying on their sound system. If you put on a lavalier mic and carry the briefcase, you could even lean it against the front of the podium and start speaking - it will seem like you are amplified through their system, but they can’t turn you off. You can rant on till they kick you out.
One other option: you can simulate a mic takeover for video by simply having your person take the stage and make a speech when nobody is around, and then intercut with reactions in the crowded room. So then the intervention becomes a video release only.
Option: Register online as a speaker
If you want to speak at a conference, the easiest way is to find the conference website, find the page called "speaking opportunities" (often in the "About" menu), and register. (You can also just search online for "speaking opportunities" - and you'll find tens of thousands of pages. Add a keyword if you like - like "oil and gas 'speaking opportunities'".)
You'll need to fill out some hard information - for example, a company name, an address, an email, a phone number, etc. You should use an email and phone number that work (and depending on what you've filled out, you can expect a follow-up call), but the address can be totally fake.
As for the email: pick something that looks right. For example, if you're representing Exxon as Luella Arschenfleck, buy a domain like exxon-corporate.com and use an address like firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: a company like Godaddy might cancel your domain name just because it contains a well-known corporate name, so you might want to use an off-beat registrar like Joker.com.
The form might also ask for your biography, description of presentation, benefits of the presentation, and additional people who might want to speak on a panel with you. For all of these, don't stand out. To help, you can plunder liberally from the internet. For example, if the conference is on oil and gas, you might try to find a powerpoint about drilling technologies - simply search on "drilling technologies ppt" or the like. Start from that.
Note: with this approach, you'll probably be asked to pay a fee as speaker. If you insist that you're very important and that you'll be issuing some very important information, that fee might be waived - but don't count on it. When we registered as Dow Chemical to speak at a nanotechnology conference in San Francisco, we dodged the fee, but at the door the organizers demanded it ($600). So we had to go find a cash machine.
Plan B: Try to register to speak without doing all the dirty work. Simply register as yourself. Once you are the speaker, you simply take the stage when it is your turn, and you say something to the effect of: “I am very glad to be here talking about X, however, when I realized that the chairman of Megacorp was here, I had to cede my time to him.” Then the person playing the megacorp guy comes up and speaks... and you can choose whether or not to publicize how they got on stage, but you do have video of them speaking.
Option: Pose as a public-relations firm with a very important client
An even better technique is to simply call up the conference.
In Calgary, Alberta, we decided we wanted to speak as Exxon at a big oil conference. So Mike emailed the conference from an address we happened to own, using a new name: email@example.com. (We don't own hillknowlton.com anymore, but any address that looks like it could belong to a PR firm will do.)
So "Gus" (Mike) wrote to the conference and told them he represented none other than Lee Raymond, the former chair of Exxon Mobil and one of the biggest players in the oil industry. Raymond, said Gus, happened to be going hunting near Calgary, and since he was involved in an outreach campaign related to his new position advising the U.S. government, he was interested in speaking at the conference. They jumped at the chance. Of course, on the day of the event, Raymond did not show up, and assistants (that would be us, Mike and Andy) had to take his place.
The problem with promising to deliver someone very famous is obvious: everyone knows who they are – and it might just get back to someone who knows the truth. So we explained that due to security and the nature of the very sensitive announcement that Raymond was to make, the conference was not allowed to say anything about him or his presentation on their promotional material. Surprisingly enough, that approach has worked… more than once. Remember to use the word "embargoed" a lot, it sounds quite important. (It hasn't always worked. In New Orleans, we promised a conference Alfonso Jackson, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and told them to keep it a secret so that the real Jackson didn't find out. Instead, the conference folks told the mayor and the governor, who both showed up to rub shoulders with Jackson... or, as it turned out, his assistant, one Rene Oswin—actually Andy.)
Option: Pose as a public-relations firm with a nobody client
A slightly more elaborate version of the VIP invitation can be used to get a "nobody" on the roster as well. When we found a conference on "Catastrophic Loss" we felt compelled to send someone from "Halliburton." First, Mike made up a bunch of names at different email addresses at hillknowlton.com. The first one, "John Smith," sent an email to the conference company, acting as if he had met them before. He wrote that their colleague "Joe" had said that they really would love to have "Fred Wolff" at the next conference, and he, John Smith, had promised to try. So now he was trying! A few days later, they got an email from a different person at hillknowlton.com, saying they'd gotten him! The conference fell for it, and "Fred Wolff" (Andy) showed them Survivaballs.
Option: Set up a website and wait
This is what we started out doing. Download a website, alter it, post it at a believable web address, and voilà! instant boss-bait. It may take a while to catch one, though....
Option: Fake it entirely
This is perhaps the most underutilized of the methods. We did something like this in Copenhagen at the Cop15, where we did not have access to the forum anyway. When nobody is at the podium (could be after hours during the conference, or during the conference when nobody is in the room) simply have your person stand behind the podium and give their speech. They can do it into a wireless mic, or they can be wearing a lav. When the room is full for another event, record the reaction shots of the audience. Cut together, add ambient sound and perhaps reverb to the speaker. But do keep in mind that this is a very dirty trick! Bad, bad boys and girls.
What you’ll need
So, just to review, you will need at the least:
- A speech or speeches from the “perpetrators”—or whatever intervention you plan
- A press release—or more than one release (as the organization you are mocking and as yourselves—whoever you decide that is.)
- A domain name / website to send press release from (optional, since you may just want to send the release about the event). However, if you create this website, it is also a good place to post info and video.
- Another website, from your real organization, that takes responsibility for the action. This one should have links to actual campaigns and to action items.
- For documentation, cell phone cameras can be enough, and there are some actions that have gotten huge publicity just from that sort of footage, or from hidden camera footage.
- If you want to document really professionally, make sure to find camera people / editors who can turn the video around in a matter of 2 hours. Make sure that these guys are legit. Everyone says they can do this, but they need to actually be able to do it at a professional level. but there should be some of those too. You need three cameras: one for the podium, locked down, and two on the audience, with an eye to catching someone who is going to intervene (real or fake; you can always plant a friend to respond to you). And you should ensure the room includes some fake press and attendees, to stimulate questions and to make the room look more full. Think about filming and editing bystander "reactions" to the speech before you actually stage this event, rather than waiting, so you can post those reactions immediately.
- A plan to get other conference goers involved somehow - including egging on an intervention.
- Someone to act as an official and fake intervener, calling the police or threatening to throw you out. This is for theatrical effect.
- A web person who is ready to post video on the day of and update the website as things come in, like new press links. (See Documenting Your Project)
There are different reasons you might want to accost people on the street (when we say “to accost,” we mean “to grab the attention of unsuspecting strangers”). The reasoning is for you to think through. As for the ways to accost them...
Stand next to a stunning sign
Why not put up a sign advertising something particularly great or offensively horrible, and stand near it with a brochure? You can represent yourself as the company selling this product if you want, which makes the action more fun.
Artist Steve Lambert uses this tactic with his sign that reads “Capitalism works for me!”, which is shiny and spectacular and encourages people to stop and engage with it.
Give them something they need
In 2004, during the US presidential elections, we printed up a bunch of “US Patriot Pledges” and handed them out to Republicans. We hoped that they would read through these things and freak out at what Bush was asking them to sacrifice. (Instead, they just read them and signed.) We’ve also distributed Survivaball brochures (inside PDF, outside PDF) as a way of bringing climate change issues close to home.
Ask passers-by for advice
Making an action participatory not only gets them to stop and listen to you for a second, but it also gives you a chance to make the issue personal. When you ask folks for advice, they get to show how smart (or how foolish) they are. You can film these responses for reaction shots or funny ideas. But you should also think about how your hilarious action can get passers-by to articulate the problem, rather than just telling them what the problem is. As anyone who has had an argument with a boss or a five-year-old knows, if a person has to articulate an idea themselves, they’ll understand it better than if you just tell them the idea.
In Boston, we showed people who were drinking Coca Cola’s Dasani water a new marketing campaign for the bottles, and we asked them what they thought of the new product, Deceit water (Dasani water is actually just tap water with salt added). Several people were stunned and educated, and the video was pretty funny.
Dress up in a hilarious costume
Wacky antics and satire can sometimes be the best form of resistance because it brings an air of celebration, wildness and humor to the pretty stark and terrifying times we find ourselves in. Your audience is more likely to remember your message when you wowed them with a compelling visual tableau, or made them laugh their asses off.
There are lots of folks who have mastered striking, political theatre like Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in New York and Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani in Peru. Their work is inspiring. Check it out!
If you’re planning a street action, Beautiful Trouble is an invaluable resource. Check out the following articles to get started, then keep browsing… you’ll find something useful.
Mass Street Action: Planning a street action on a large scale
Don’t Dress Like a Protestor: Using costumes effectively
Show, Don’t Tell: Thinking visually before you hit the streets
The Teddy Bear Catapult: Using absurdity to undermine the aura of authority
Ethical Spectacle: Stephen Duncolme’s principles for planning a symbolic action
Putting together a press conference on behalf of a target (who doesn’t know you’re doing it) can be very simple. You just need to set up a podium with a logo on it in front of a building and speak over a PA system of some sort to a small audience of fake reporters (plus real ones, if you can convince them to show up) and planted passers-by (then real ones who stop to see what’s going on). No forewarning needed: just turn on your sound system, start speaking, and record the whole thing.
The key here is simply to make it look good: add some flag-waving, colorful signs, a marching band, perhaps some fake protesters against your press conference—or whatever's appropriate to your context. All will contribute joy and color to an impromptu scene.
Tipping off your target so they intervene in your action—for instance, by shutting down your press conference—is a good tactic as well. When Mr. Eric Wohlschlegel of the US Chamber of Commerce interrupted our press conference (which was at the National Press Club), it was a gold mine for us, and extended the story’s longevity in the media by a good three days. But that intervention was unplanned: a real reporter received our press advisory and showed up at the Chamber instead of the National Press Club, tipping them off. We could have done this on purpose, had we known how great it would be.
Note: If you rent a room at an official venue, and if you try to invite real journalists to your conference with a Press Advisory, there are some additional considerations:
- You’ll have to figure out how to not tip off your target before the event, when journalists call them up to ask about the press conference. One option is to tie up the target’s phone lines all morning between the time of your Press Advisory and the event itself, with numerous calls from angry citizens. (This is what the Yes Men and their collaborators The Avaaz Action Factory did in the instance mentioned above.)
- It’s probably best not to let the official venue (e.g. the National Press Club) know that you’ll be posing as your target. Instead, make up a name. Then, switch the signs and logos at the last minute. (Note: In the wake of our conference at the NPC on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, the NPC changed its requirements to make it more difficult to change your name/logo. But there are, of course, many other venues.)
You’ll want to film your event in detail, with three or four cameras. This is the most important consideration! This is much more important than who’s in attendance. You shouldn’t count on coverage from real reporters—you should cover it yourself and send out the video with a press release (see "Prime Time" section below). Here are some tips:
- One camera can be a steady wide shot of the area, including the speaker(s).
- One can be a steady close-up on the speaker(s).
- Reactions of the audience are especially useful in editing a funny piece, so it’s a good idea to have one camera dedicated to getting shots of the audience reacting.
- One can be a roving camera that captures other stuff, especially unexpected action, as it happens.
Note: Camera people should generally stick to their jobs - for example, the wide-shot camera shouldn’t zoom in. The close-up camera shouldn’t zoom out. The reaction camera shouldn’t show the speaker(s). But there are always exceptions.
The Yes Men do not generally use arrests as a way to grab media attention, but we very much respect it as a tactic. If your goal in getting arrested is to increase press or visibility for your issue, there are various ways to optimize the arrest. Some people have used arrests to significantly change how the mainstream media covers their cause—and some big organizations like Greenpeace have made it part of their daily operations. With good planning, getting arrested is not to be feared, but it is also not to be taken lightly: occasionally there are serious consequences for the activist (See Tim DeChristopher’s story, below.)
This guide will give you a few ideas for engaging the media if you are getting arrested. It is not a practical guide to the whole process. There are many things to think about that have nothing to do with media—like figuring out the stakes, having people on the outside to advocate once you are in the system, etc. Before you decide to participate in direct action, civil disobedience, and/or face arrest, it’s important to prepare yourself and your team. There are many great guides to minimizing the risks while being arrested. You would be advised to find one that can help you understand the local context where you plan to get arrested. Sometimes it is also good to review best practices for being arrested along issue-specific lines. If you are planning to get arrested while locking down to a bulldozer that is clearing forest for a pipeline, there are amazing folks who know all about that. Reach out to them! Here are just a few of many available resources as you plan your action.
- ACT UP, Civil Disobedience Manual
- Beautiful Trouble, “Take Risks, but Take Care”
- War Resisters League, “Nonviolence Training: Nonviolent Action Preparation”
- Destructables, “Copwatch: Know Your Rights!”
- Undocubus, Nopapersnofear.org
If you are undocumented, we’ve been told it’s a good idea to seek legal advice before placing yourself at risk of arrest.
We did once manage to use an arrest to get attention for a cause. In 2009, Andy Bichlbaum spent 26 hours in New York City's central lockup before having all charges against him dismissed.
Bichlbaum was arrested and charged with trespassing after he and 21 "Survivaballs" gathered on New York City's East River and announced they were to going to "take the UN by storm" from the water. The event was a photogenic action planned to draw media attention to the run-up to Copenhagen. It was also the official inauguration of the Yes Men's "Balls Across America" series of civil disobedience actions, inspired by the Climate Pledge of Resistance.
Minutes after the balls began wading into the water, law enforcement swooped in on the protesters by land, sea, and air. In order not to harm their attackers, the balls admitted defeat and waddled out of the water and off the beach. Seven participants were given tickets for trespassing, and one Bichlbaum was whisked away to "the Tombs," New York's central processing facility at 100 Centre Street, due to an unpaid ticket for bicycle riding.
Bichlbaum's arrest led to hilarious prime-time coverage on CNN. But only because there were cameras there to photograph and videotape the arrest, and a team ready to call CNN producers, tell them about the action and the arrest, and to take the media directly to the CNN offices. But getting arrested can be like the proverbial tree falling in the woods: if there is nobody there to hear it, record it, and broadcast it, then it may as well have not happened. The takeaway: if you’re getting arrested, you need competent people to film everything, take pictures, and then quickly get the documentation to the mainstream media. Our story about Andy’s arrest was from 2009, but nowadays you should also be doing social media. Yes, deliver your files to the big guys if they’ll take it, but don’t count on them. Get the word out instantly by uploading the arrest to YouTube, announcing it via email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, or whatever other over-rated NSA backdoor websites are the big social thing of the moment. It also works to find Rupert Murdoch, stand one foot away from him, and using an eleven-inch bullhorn, sing the story of the arrest directly into his gob. Try it!
Sometimes getting arrested can have huge consequences, both in your movement work and in your own life. In 2008, student Tim DeChristopher attended an illegal land auction in Utah. Planning to disrupt the auction, in which public land was being sold to the gas and oil industry, DeChristopher decided to participate as a bidder, driving up prices and ultimately winning several of the plots of land.
In an interview with Democracy Now, DeChristopher said:
Once I was in there, I realized that any kind of speech or disruption wasn’t going to be very effective. But I saw pretty quickly how I could have a pretty major impact on the way this worked. It took me a little bit of time to build up my courage, knowing what the consequences would be—and then I started bidding and started driving up the prices. But I knew I could be doing more. So then I started winning bids, and disrupting it as clearly as I could.
DeChristopher’s actions shut down the auction, but he also was charged with two felonies and spent almost two years in prison. You can read the full story here.
In an age of NSA nuisance, security and privacy in activism is a very real concern. As much as you want people to know what you’re doing and cause a rumble, you want it to happen on your rules - not when some two-bit hacker decides to poke around. That said, security culture can be a double-edged sword: in organizations based around community and trust, suspicion is no one’s friend. So here are some Yes Men tips and tools for staying safe - and, more importantly, sane.
What Is Security Culture?
Security culture is the set of values and customs you establish in your organization around security. Security culture is developed to minimize the risk of your activities being sabotaged or infiltrated by outsiders which can undermine direct action.
Why Is Security Culture Important?
Activist organizations operate with a degree of covertness: this level of secrecy allows for direct action which relies on tactics of surprise and shock. Often, activist organizations operate in a grey area when it comes to legality: it can be crucial to maintain protection from official eyes. This is particularly important as activist organizations are often directly targeted by said official eyes. It is also important for the individual safety of your members: we operate around sensitive issues and maintaining anonymity for your members is vital.
How Is Security Culture Dangerous?
Security culture inherently relies on suspicion: an awareness of your vulnerability is what should motivate you to develop a strong security system. But if you think about activist culture more broadly, you’ll think of values of community, empowerment and trust at the heart of many movements - this can feel at odds with security culture which relies on suspicion, secrecy and covertness.
As activist and writer George Lakey points out, “To win, movements need to expand. To expand, activists need to trust—themselves, each other, and people they reach out to.” This is true both within the team and with outside allies who are necessary to get the ball rolling. Creating an environment based on suspicion and fear can break a team apart and be totally counterproductive to inspiring others to join your movement.
How Do You Solve This Dilemma?
So you need security culture but it can also be your achilles heel. How do you solve this? Following this handy Yes Men guide of course!
Assess your risk.
How dangerous and risky is your operation really? Are you trying to break into the Pentagon or stop the closure of your favorite ice cream store? Think about this in terms of how much of a target your activity really is and also how vulnerable you really are. At the end of the day, when you are just starting out, you won’t be trying to take on Monsanto all on your own: rather, your biggest threat will be leaks to the media. These can be inadvertent leaks or deliberate sabotage: either way, having a sensible approach to security culture will ensure that your operation makes headlines when it best suits you. But always maintain an awareness of what your risk factor really is - assessing this will allow you to avoid unnecessary paranoia and develop the most effective strategy.
Come Up With An Appropriate Strategy
- Once you have determined your risk factor, come up with a strategy that is appropriate to your organization. Set up a meeting with your key team members and come up with a plan that is effective for all of you. Security needs to start with an organization’s leadership - you need to set the right tone.
- Think about how you involve new members too: this process always brings a risk, so come up with ways to ensure security. Perhaps do an informal background check or make sure they have references from people within the organization. Once you feel comfortable involving someone new, share your security concerns with them so everyone on the team is on the same page.
- Create an information chain: there are certain pieces of information that can be far more crucial to your activities than others. Likewise, there are members of your team who have greater seniority: these are the people you can trust with the more sensitive information. Meanwhile, newer members can be privy to what is essential for their work. This way, if someone in your outer circle is compromised, the inner workings of your plan won’t be undermined.
Keep Your Paranoia In Check
Always check in with yourself to make sure you aren’t getting paranoid. Keep eyes and ears open, of course, but not at the expense of teamwork. Remember that your focus is on ACTION not on worrying if people are going to find out about it. It's not newsworthy that "some activists were planning to do this really funny thing"—it's only news if you actually do it. So focus first on your action, then on your security plan. Maintain a cool head and ask yourself - is this healthy suspicion or all-out, Rear Window paranoia?
One time the Yes Men ran a pretty successful stunt during the 2004 Bush campaign, specifically during a conference by this strange cultish group called the International Web Police. We had everyone fooled right up until the when someone cottoned on that we were actually imposters with a healthy dose of satire. All hell broke loose and we were driven out of the conference room pretty quickly. We panicked and got a bit paranoid that the police had been called: we ended up dumping all our props and equipment and making a real run for it. Of course, the police WEREN’T really after us and, had we kept a cool head, we probably could’ve held on to some useful pieces of equipment for future stunts. So again, always assess your risk factor and be prepared to act accordingly. A cool head, even when a room full of Republicans is yelling at you, is key.
Maintaining communication is crucial. Here’s an example. In 2012, a woman infiltrated the 9/11 survivors movement: various people within the organization had suspicions, but didn't talk to each other about their suspicions. Eventually the deception came to light, but it seriously undermined the organization in the process. So, if you are worried about a potential infiltration - talk! Have a meeting with your key members, maintain trust and maintain openness with the people that are important to your work.
Use Your Common Sense!
Above all, stay logical. If something or someone doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and act. If someone is trying to get you to do something dangerous or foolish that could compromise you are your organization, don’t do it. Be open about your concerns or disagreements. As much as security is about protecting privacy, in this kind of work its also about talking and keeping communication wide open - this will be the true strength of your team.
Talk to Us!
Lastly, talk to us. Just by being on this site you’ve given us access to tons of information: thanks to a handy loophole in legislation, we’ve gained access to your metadata, which is just oh so useful. Just kidding. Or are we? No, we are. But seriously. Watch your back.
There are a lot of things wrong with the mainstream media—very, very wrong—but generally if you do their work for them they will be very happy to pay attention to your activism. Document everything that you can along the way, from the brainstorming to the day of the action and beyond. If your action includes some kind of street theater or any kind of live action human drama, always take care to ensure that someone from your team records it.
What You’ll Need
When we say “document everything,” we generally mean that: 1) you should use a video camera to film yourself and your co-conspirators as you work on your action, and 2) you should save HTML copies of any webpages, news coverage, blog posts, and radio spots that cover your story.
Regarding 1: You don’t need a fancy video camera to do this. A cell phone camera can shoot useable footage. If the sound isn't great, you might want to invest in a microphone, depending on where you’re hoping to use the video footage. (OK sound will be fine for youtube videos, but you need great sound for a video news release. Test it to see how much background noise there is. Background noise is death!)
Regarding 2: Most web browsers include a “save as HTML” option, which allows you to save a webpage. This is useful in case your coverage gets amended or taken down.
You should set up a few Google Alerts before your launch—use your group’s name, some of the keywords from your action, the name of your target, etc.—so you don’t miss any press. Then save it!
Start Documenting at the Start
If your action begins with a brainstorming session, film or record it! Not only does it ensure that you will have a record of your work, you can watch later to see how things progressed. Having everything recorded in the brainstorming stages can also serve as back up notes, can be thrown into a video press release later, or can be used to revisit old ideas you might want to try out in future actions.
Save All Media Coverage During The Active Time
As your action goes active, create place to save all the press that you receive. Save all online files, and be sure to name them appropriately for easy access. (In Firefox, select File / Save As, and make sure to choose “Complete HTML” so you get a copy of the full page). This is important because sometimes mainstream media sources will edit the story or even take it down later, and you need to have a record so you can share your successes online. Don’t rely on it staying available on the internet; back up your work!
Also, keep a record of what you’re saving off, and what URL it refers to - for example: enbridge-theprovince-fooled.html
Archive Video and Radio Responses to Your Project
Sometimes video coverage will be available online, or someone will be kind enough to upload it for you to youtube, vimeo, or some other uploading site. If not, there are a few handy ways to record and save streaming video; search Google for a website or a code that will allow you to download the video, and then follow those instructions. If you get radio coverage, the station often offers a podcast that you can download after the piece runs. If none of this works, at least try to record your end of the interaction: so, while you’re giving a radio interview, put your phone on speaker and ask a friend to film you talking to the radio host.
Documenting each step of your action takes some pre-planning, but it makes it infinitely easier to share your work with others afterwards.
Too often activists think they have to get journalists to an event in order to make it a success in the media. Often this is exactly the wrong approach - it’s sometimes better not to have any reporters there at all, but to do your own documentation and then get it to reporters. There are several ways to do this.
The basic tool of public relations is the press release. You write the article you’d like to see, and link to any other materials that might be useful - images, videos, etc. Reporters won’t usually just take your release and rewrite it, but they will often cannibalize the material you provide, and they will often take the suggestions provided by the overall structure of your release as a guide to writing their own article. (Of course, you also need to send the release. We're preparing some technical notes about that to come soon.)
Similar is the video news release (VNR). A VNR is basically a promotional video that looks and sounds like TV news, but is really a form of advertisement. Corporations, Politicians, and even government entities produce them, and give them to news stations who are desperate for cheap content to keep their costs down. It’s been estimated that 30% of local TV news is actually corporate or political advertisements masquerading as news. As this piece says, “online VNRs are a creative way to get your message out.” Just imitate other VNRs and then email it, embedded in a press release, to media outlets.
You can also, in some examples, just provide the raw material to TV. For example: See these reports on "Survivalballs take UN" and "Public Option Annie." In those cases, we took the material (images, video, a prop) personally to CNN, and that personal pushiness was what made it happen (the same reporter, Jeannie Moos, covered both actions).
In all of these cases, you’re simply providing all the raw materials to journalists, who can cover the story without having to be there. In these days of cost-cutting and streamlining and “rationalizing” of all functions, this sort of approach is very welcome by many outlets—and is why big PR companies can have such a field day and get whatever message across that they like. Activists can—and must—use this same situation to our advantage.
Note: Sometimes in fact it’s better not to invite journalists to an event you want to publicize. Your event may end up looking terrible, being boring, or the immediate audience may be too small, etc. When you provide your own documentation to the press, you can choose only the most exciting images and video clips to share. You can also get tricky about it: only videotape the person at the podium, and for the reverse shot of the audience cut in from another source. If you have some good stock video of reactions in the ‘press room’ it may be all you need to have a full press conference with nobody there at all.
Put yourself in the shoes of a journalist
Let’s stop worrying about doing big actions and blasting the word out in various ways like Twitter and Facebook, banking on the theory that the sheer mass of information will trigger media coverage. Instead let’s start putting ourselves in the shoes of journalists as a matter of course.
When planning an action with the goal to draw attention to your movement, you should ask yourself routinely: "If I were a journalist from Newsweek, how would I pitch a story about this to my editors?" This can lead to actions that at the very least keep us amused, and probably would do a lot more.
As an exercise you could create a big list of action ideas, following a suggested rule: pretend you're a mainstream journalist who wants to write a story about this problem, but you have to pitch the story to your mainstream editor.
This guiding principle could become a sort of template for actions—with, hopefully, the actions being improved upon with time and thought. Most editors aren't going to okay a story titled "Activists Hold Another Rally." What story can you give them that they will be excited to publish?
Rather than design a march on Wall Street, you can think of silly actions that still get your story across - even without holding banners and signs. Take this idea: people mourning Wall Street en masse in a really creepy way. We are not saying that this is a great idea, but if it’s done right, and with enough borderline creepiness, it certainly could result in coverage of the "this hasn't been done before" or "this hasn't been done since the '60s."
You can be pretty out there as you brainstorm your big list of action ideas: people hurling poop at buildings, blocking a bank office by building toilets, etc.—journalists could pretty easily pitch those stories to their editors. (If you're planning a direct action that could result in arrests, make sure that you train your team beforehand so you, and they, know what to expect.)
How about even just redoing a brilliant action that others have designed? For instance, if you are working on an issue around big banks, you might borrow the Otpor barrel action but collect money for the retirement of the CEOs of Chase, BofA, etc. Or you could adapt the Yippie dog burnings, where activists posted notices that something atrocious was being done to a cute puppy and that people could come watch this abuse. Actions like these need a clear storyline that a journalist can latch onto, and therefore can report on.
You can brainstorm dozens of such actions, some inspired by or copied from from past actions (check out Beautiful Trouble and Actipedia) to compile a big list of suggested, not fully-fleshed out ideas. Then members of your group can refine and improve these actions as you go forward with your planning, always thinking of the golden rule of “How can the journalist pitch it?”
How to speak to the press
Keep in mind always what you're fundamentally trying to do: further publicize your target's evil behavior and expose their obscene attitude behind it. Stick to that message.
There is a possibility that, if you’ve kept your goal in mind, a journalist will finds his/her way to you. Whether you are pretending to be the bad guy of the targeted company or the activist explaining the action, it is wise to be prepared to talk to the press early on in the game. Practice before you perform.
Prepare and write your talking points down; it will help you remain consistent with your goals. It is unnecessary to write pages and pages of talking points. Keep them short, funny, filled with punchy lines, or offensive-sounding ones if you're impersonating your evil target.
Set up an email address and designate a cell phone where journalists can reach you whenever you send out a press release. If you don’t want to use your personal cell phone, you can also set a number up with Google Voice or Skype, or a pay-per-use cell phone. If you do use your own number, do a google search on the number to make sure that it doesn’t turn up in searches.
Journalists are your audience: make them laugh
Basically we try to make journalists with our projects. If we can make them laugh, they know they can make readers or viewers laugh—and that means they can make a story.
Making the political point a big part of the story, intrinsically, via the press release or Video News Release, means that journalists can share that political point without sacrificing their so-called journalistic integrity. The humor is just an excuse to get that message across.
But: to invite or not to invite?
One way to get the word out about actions is to have journalists attend. But that’s not a reliable tactic at all. Really, the main role you should count on journalists to fulfill is the same as everyone else: extras in your drama.
There are good reasons not to count on journalists, even if they're very sympathetic to your political goals. One reason is that you have no control over what they write or what they show. Any performance we've done has included a lot of boring stuff, some stumbles and just plain uninteresting moments, and ideally, we don’t want journalists to write a story about our mistakes.
Also, no matter how sympathetic the journalist is, they’re simply not likely to capture the best, most important points just by observing it—either in writing or on video. That’s why you need to write a press release for them (see below) and provide your own video and images too (see below).
When journalists have shown up at our events, not invited by us, it has always turned out well, so long as we’ve also covered the story and just counted on the journalists as extras. In our HUD action, for example, two journalists knew from the get-go that the exchange was fake, confronted us on it, and thus gave us some priceless, tension-filled footage for our movie. After our Chamber of Commerce action, a Mother Jones journalist who was present described the whole thing on Rachel Maddow—using footage we’d provided them with.
Journalists don’t even need to show up at your event for the action to be widely covered. When we staged a press conference with 20 Survivaballs jumping into the East River to take the UN by assault, we announced it widely but no one showed up. So we filmed the whole thing—including Andy accidentally getting arrested for an outstanding bicycle ticket—and carried the footage directly to CNN, where CNN reporter Jeanne Moos came down and tried a Survivaball suit on, then built a hilarious piece in which it seemed that CNN had shot the entire Survivaball incident.
What's a press release for?
It's fair to say that the press release is the single most important tool we have for getting the word out, especially for print media. With a press release, it’s possible to make a story big even in the absence of any video or even photos.
The way to write a press release is, in a nutshell, to imagine the ideal article that you’d like to see. Write it at least seemingly objectively. Ideally, get to the political point of your action by the first paragraph but definitely no later than the second. You’re basically giving journalists an excuse to write about an important issue (Rachel Maddow, after going over the whole Chamber of Commerce attack, then spent another few minutes rehashing the various ways the Chamber was under attack). And if you can write a press release that’s nearly publishable as an article without much editing on their end, you’re saving them a lot of work.
The other function your press release can have—besides getting the story into the paper—is to serve as a funny thing people pass around at work. It can reach millions that way too. So make it funny. People, including journalists, like funny.
There are plenty of great resources on how to write a press release, on “proper” press release style. Google it!
Voice of the press release
Whose voice should it be in? Our choices so far have been (a) our own voice, i.e. the Yes Men's, and (b) the voice of the entity we're targeting.
Here, we'll examine these options in turn. They are not mutually exclusive: you can send out, for example, a release in the voice of your target (or, for that matter, four releases in their voice—see COP15) and then, at some later point, a "reveal" release explaining the whole thing.
The "reveal" release simply reveals the whole story in "your" voice. Of course, it's your official voice, or your journalist-friendly voice. You still write it in that official press release style, without real personal stuff—but you want journalists to basically trust what you're saying. You're communicating directly the what, when, and where, and giving journalists "trustable" quotes by you, or of people you make up (though some journalists will not want to quote fake names).
A "fake" press release, on the other hand, appears to come from the entity you're targeting. A "fake" release can either simply communicate the how, what, and where, but do so in character, elliptically, pretty much for fun—or it can be entirely fake, and reveal nothing of what actually happened.
In the COP15 action, we sent out four releases sequentially (plus a fake newspaper article) that essentially composed the action, and revealed nothing of its construction. We also, the next day, sent out a "reveal" release that claimed credit, explained the actors behind the hoax, and described its various results (which included reactions by top government spokespeople).
A note on timing: Beginning with our New York Times action, we learned something very interesting about the timing of the "reveal" press release. Prior to that, we’d send out the “reveal” immediately. But someone told us we should wait, and let journalists do some legwork. We waited, and found that by delaying the “reveal” by a few hours, we got a whole additional round of press out of it, when journalists who had mused about various things could then assert them with confidence.
What's video for?
You can’t count on anyone besides you to get the right video. It's necessary to take your own pictures and video, and, if needed, edit them for quality (not for falsification, as the ACORN pimp did; that’s treachery and crookery, not activism). Make these videos available to journalists. If you want, you can give the jump to particular journalists with whom you’ve built a relationship.
Videos you provide to TV stations just need to be well shot, in fairly high res. Currently, consumer HDV is good enough, which means that even a high-res handheld camera can work. The sound should be decent, so invest in a good microphone.
The video should make the action look as exciting as it can possibly look; in other words, if you have a room that’s too sparsely populated, pick some angles that avoid the empty chairs.
Keep in mind that newscasters, if they use your footage, are going to use it as B-roll, mainly, so it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. (You can edit stuff into a Video News Release, if you have a few days beforehand to do so with fake material, but unless you’re a big professional outfit, it’s unlikely you can do this on the spot. See below.)
Getting the video to the station, along with the story, is a matter of calling stations directly and announcing to them you’ve got a great story for them. For example: “You won’t believe it, but 20 giant orbs are getting fished out of the East River by police helicopters, and they’re arresting all kinds of people. It looks hilarious. Oh, and we can bring you the footage, which is shot really well, and one of the orbs for you to try on.”
Video News Releases
A Video News Release is just a press release in video form—basically, a piece of news that you could imagine being played as is. So you provide a voiceover in a newscastery style, and you construct a whole piece, including sign-off.
Our VNR for the fake New York Times—filmed a few days in advance, with entirely faked action—was not used as is by news stations, but was plundered for B-roll by stations that didn’t get actual footage of the day. It seems like this might be the most common use of the VNR, at least in our case.
This is intended to model a "reveal" release, i.e. one telling the truth. Fake releases have a somewhat different logic from the below; for those, see for example Three Strikes You're In, Coal Cares, and GE. For a similar guide to making Video News Releases, see “How To Report the News” by Charlie Miller.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
THRILLING HEADLINE YOU COULD IMAGINE SEEING IN THE PAPER
Slightly more informative sub-headline, that can fill in what actually happened
Contact: the person mentioned in the last paragraph
Photos and videos: at this URL
(Optionally, the location) A first paragraph that lays out, concisely, soberly, and with aplomb, what happened that is out-of-this-world newsworthy—or, at least, merits transmitting because it's so damned hilarious. It also says it in an unaligned way, and employs a tone suggesting detachment from the tactic in question—detachment that should actually be kind of real.
"Invented quote, which can, optionally, communicate the emotional importance of the subject introduced in the first paragraph to me," said perhaps a passerby, or perhaps John, a member of Group That Effected the Action, the group that effected the action. "Or it can fill in some bit of info that you really need—some added elements of the story."
"Or hell, why not both—and why not end with a five-word quip, perhaps including a risqué bit of language, especially if the action is a one-liner that doesn't need this precious press release real estate to explain, but can instead spend that space just providing a quotable bit of funniness," added the same person's last name.
Now, some bit of info that's really necessary to fully make sense of what that person just said—or what the quote said, as it probably never actually passed their lips—and, more importantly, why the action was done. There can be percentage figures, such as 35%, and there can be bits of fact that build quickly to a bang.
"Phew, that bang really hit me over the head, yikes," said a non-insider—perhaps an expert, or perhaps just a passerby, whose name you can furnish along with some relevant detail about them, like where they're from (if that's relevant) or what entity they're associated with. "Indeed I'm floored by that bang, which really makes the ramifications of this issue terrifically clear."
"And that makes me very happy, sad, or whatever emotion is most appropriate here," added another person—or perhaps it can just be mentioned that the person proceeded to weep uncontrollably or give an awkward giggle. Not that it's necessary to mention this.
Finally, there can be a few words about why it was necessary to employ such tactics as described in the first paragraph and filled out a bit below that. Hopefully the last sentence can pack a punch—or a pun, just like a cloyingly formulaic news story might.
For more information, if there's no "contact" line at the top, contact someone, maybe the person from the second paragraph. Depending on whether the non-insider in the fifth paragraph is likely to say the right thing in an interview, you can contact them too.
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List-management information, including how to stop getting these emails—preferably a URL you can click to unsubscribe.
Remember to have a place (on the web) to link all the stuff in your project, that you will want to share with journalists and the world once it's revealed. That means:
- Fake press releases
- The reveal press release
- Fake websites. Note: to really preserve the website, you'll need it to be an archive in straightforward HTML, not a Wordpress site or some such. Use software to download your Wordpress site into HTML so that you can archive and post it somewhere.
- The inside story (optional). This is distinct from the reveal release, which is intended to communicate a lot of stuff, but not necessarily all your missteps!
To see how we've done this over the years, visit any of our project pages — some are more complete than others.