It was a scene right out of the late 1960s: college students occupying a university in a non-violent protest. The students appeared well-organized and unlike their predecessors, they had modern technology at their disposal. Laptops were using WiFi to post blog updates, cellphones were Twittering away throughout the protest, and video cameras were there to record it all.
Whether the protest at New York University (“NYU”) last week was a success is yet to be determined. Only the students who took part will be able to determine that. For now, however, those involved may want to rethink their actions and devise a plan for future protests because they seem to have accomplished little in the near-term.
The protest, launched by a group called Take Back NYU, was related to a number of issues. The protesters want NYU to be more transparent about its budget, endowment and investments. They want the university to allow student employees such as teaching assistants to organize, and they want fair labor practices to be instituted for all NYU employees and those who work for NYU contractors here and abroad. They also want annual scholarships to be provided for thirteen Palestinian students and for the university to donate all excess supplies and materials in an effort to rebuild the University of Gaza. In addition, they want a temporary tuition freeze and thereafter tuition raises to only be adjusted to keep pace with inflation – and, finally, for a campus library to be open to the public.
Excuse me while I catch my breath.
The amazing thing about the protesters’ demands was that “amnesty for all parties involved” topped their list. Second was a demand for those NYU employees whose jobs were disrupted by the protest to be paid. The ninth demand on the list was about tuition, something that seemingly all NYU students would agree with.
The traditional media gave the NYU protest a fair amount of coverage, though much of it was isolated to the New York area and the affair was treated as a local story, shoved next to stories involving crime and transit system budgets. The blogosphere and alternative media lit up with coverage and commentary, but a good deal of it was negative, something I found surprising given the current wave of liberalism in the country. In fact, quite a few current and past NYU students expressed dismay over the protest.
In my opinion, Take Back NYU fumbled the ball and made several errors.
The organization’s demands were too wide-ranging and not interconnected enough. Worse, its first demand involved looking out for itself, not the people the protesters were claiming to be trying to help. The whole point of a protest is to draw attention to a cause, and by putting itself first, Take Back NYU suggested that those taking part in the protest were more important than the cause.
The wide-ranging demands also obscured the message. Those on the outside looking in, including many NYU students, had difficulty figuring out exactly what the point of the protest was. What issue is most important and most pressing? This was never made clear.
Technology, meanwhile, actually worked against the protesters. Some pictures uploaded to the group’s blog suggested that the protest was more of a party than a civil action. At least one video uploaded to YouTube and other websites by a protester in the aftermath of the event showed the protest ending with a whimper and those involved appearing disorganized and unable to recognize the difference between authorities considering them trespassers and equal partners in a debate. Sadly, there was no debate, but that doesn’t excuse the ignorance of believing that university officials and security personnel don’t have the right to remove students from a campus building.
Perhaps the biggest error the protesters made was not recognizing the current political and economic climate. The economy is in a desperate situation and people are hurting. When members of the public see a group of mostly white, seemingly middle- and upper-class students who attend one of the most expensive universities in America protesting over everything under the sun, they’re not going to react with sympathy.
As I mentioned earlier, the point of a protest is to draw attention to and support for a cause with the hope of eventually effecting change. For that to occur, protesters typically need to win sympathy and support from those outside of their protest sphere.
To this day, one of the most striking images of the 1960s is of peaceful African-American protesters dressed in their Sunday best being attacked by the police. I argued this point several years ago when I was asked to take part in a protest. Why, I asked, couldn’t protesters wear business attire and march silently? Wouldn’t the image of thousands of young people, dressed conservatively and acting respectfully, appeal to people whose opinions we wanted to change? Preaching to the choir, I said, was nothing more than self-gratification.
“How we are perceived by those outside of the protest is important because we want to change the way people think about the issue. We don’t need to win over people who already support our cause,” I wrote in an email to the leaders of the protest. “We want to win over people who are ambivalent to our concerns or who are against us. How can we do that if they can’t identify with us? How can we do that if they can’t discern the difference between us and those who are not actively trying to create change? If someone who doesn’t support us turns on the news and sees video of our protest, what do we want them to see?”
The protest leaders responded by telling me that I was “too concerned about public relations” and that it was “the substance of our argument” that mattered most. I agreed with the latter statement, but I said then – and I still feel now – that substance is obscured when protesters don’t recognize that the goal is to engender sympathy for their cause and to win support, and, in order to do so, they must utilize public relations strategies.
The NYU protesters are learning this lesson now. Perhaps next time they will come up with a better PR strategy.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.