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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Online Petition Sites:  Emerging Tool for Mobilizing Opinion

Recently I've been witnessing the power of free online petition sites to mobilize public opinion and influence a target audience.  The petitions, begun in my home town, target the local school board.  But these sites--and also paid sites--appear ready-made not only for use by public interest and political groups.  They seem applicable for use by businesses and nonprofit organizations as well in support of marketing communications, community relations, investor relations and public affairs programs.

Online petition sites make it easy to start a petition.  Petition signers can either have their name visible to the public or else kept anonymous except to the organizations which petitions are directed.  To eliminate duplicate signatures, the sites require signers to provide their email addresses (which are kept anonymous).  Also, petition signers can leave comments alongside  their signatures, helping convince others to sign, giving insight into their motivation, and adding to the persuasiveness of the action being requested. 

While an online petition may not be legally valid to effect change, the persuasive impact is potentially impressive.  Politicians who disregard the signers will have to face them at the polls.  Businesses who pay no heed to the signers may find their sales slumping.

Creating Community

The petition is a meaningful device not only because of its potential to create change.  It is meaningful also as an organizing device.  It establishes visibility for an issue, for a position or for both.  It gives signers a sense of being part of a community. 

And once the petition is established, viral marketing and standard publicity techniques can be used to publicize the petition and increase the number of signatures.

Here are several ways that come quickly to mind for using these sites to advance public relations (in the broadest sense) objectives:

  • a company stimulates a user group or PAC to petition the government in support of passing a new law
  • a company initiates a petition as part of cause-related marketing
  • a company stimulates shareholders of an acquisition target to petition the target's board of directors to change its bylaws, back a proposed slate of directors, or improve transparency.

An example of a free petition site is PetitionOnLine.com, which bills itself as providing "free hosting of public petitions for responsible public advocacy.  We welcome petitions on almost any subject, for almost any audience."  Go to the site's FAQ for a good overview of how these sites work. For  reviews of this and four other popular sites, check out "Top Five Online Petition Sites."

Examples of Business Petitions

It's easy to envision businesses as being on the receiving end of petitions.  A user group, for example, petitions a company to change a product feature or a business practice; a shareholder group petitions a public company to stop doing business in a country with a repressive regime.   But are businesses really initiating or joining in online petition efforts?  Here are five instances-- involving, among others, KFC and Microsoft--that I've come up with after a quick search of the Internet.

First, here are the headline and lead of a business news release about an online petition.  The petition appears to be an example of cause-related marketing.  The headline announces "Local Business Drafts Olympic Softball Petition" and the lead elaborates:

A Florida business, recently featured in Florida Today & revered for their dedication in helping Softball teams throughout the country, has begun a Petition to Reinstate Softball in the 2016 Olympic games, and all future Olympics as well.

Small Publishers Association

Second, here is an excerpt from a 2008 posting about an online petition begun by the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN) in connection with the class action antitrust lawsuit, BookLocker.com, Inc. vs. Amazon.com, Inc.:

What can you do to help?

Here are five steps that will let Amazon know that publishers
and writers want a change:

1. Sign the Petition  We have initiated an online petition
individuals and organizations can sign indicating they
support the lawsuit. The petition will be sent to Jeff Bezos
and the Amazon Board.

You can sign the petition by clicking here:
www.spannet.org/amazonantitrust-petition.htm

Kansas City

Third, here is the start of a news release by the Kansas City Bid Committee about an online petition drive in support of attracting the 2018/2020 World Cup to that city:

Kansas City Bid Committee launches online petition drive

Sign petition at goUSAbid.com/kc to support efforts to be part of World Cup bid

Kansas City Wizards Media Relations                             11/09/2009 4:03 PM

KANSAS CITY, MO -- The Kansas City / USA Host City Bid Committee announced Monday that an electronic petition drive has begun to boost the city's chances of hosting FIFA World CupTM matches in 2018 or 2022 should FIFA choose the United States as a host nation. . . . To support the effort, Kansas Citians are asked to sign the petition at www.goUSAbid.com/kc and pass the petition along to their friends and family.

KFC

Fourth, here is the beginning of a news release by KFC Corporation announcing an online petition drive to Congress "urging Congress to make Mother's Day an officially recognized holiday in the United States."

LOUISVILLE, Ky., April 30 /PRNewswire-HISPANIC PR WIRE/ -- George Washington, Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther King, Jr. all had at least two things in common: federal holidays named in their honor and mothers who gave them life and kept them fed. To honor all moms, whether they're famous around the world or just around the house, KFC has created an online petition to urge Congress to elevate May 11 from a mere "observance" to an official "federal holiday."

Microsoft

Fifth, here is a portion of Microsoft's wording of its online petition in 2007 seeking international approval of its Office Open XML file format: 

Sign the Petition Supporting ISO/IEC Standardization of Open XML

To National Standards Bodies Voting on ISO Standardization of Open XML: 

We, the undersigned, wish to communicate our support for the approval of Ecma 376 - Office Open XML File Formats ("Open XML") as an ISO/IEC standard. We request our national standards body cast their vote in favor of this standard.

As the above five examples suggest, petitions have the potential to help crystallize public opinion in ways that benefit business, not just undercut it.  In an era of social media, we may see more businesses increasingly adopt this traditional technique, using online petition sites to build community and create change in connection with business-related goals and issues.

-- Jeff Bogart

9:27 pm est          Comments


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