Letter (or postcard) -writing and petitions to political decision-makers, opinion-shapers and the media are common techniques to draw attention to a cause and ask for public action, or to correct misleading public statements made by others. Lobbying letters are addressed directly and only to the relevant decision-makers (primary targets), while open letters, postcards, sign-on letters and petitions are shared with a wide public audience so as to garner public support for a cause. Open letters are normally published in some forum, e.g. a newspaper or an e-mail list. Letters to supporters inform campaign supporters on progress in the campaign, and encourage them to continue supporting it. See the section on campaign newsletters for general advice that can be used to effectively inform and motivate supporters.
The rise of e-campaigning has led to letters and petitions being able to reach large numbers of people in a short time span. The use of “new” communication technology, such as the internet and mobile telephones, in campaigning can be a quick, cheap and effective way of contacting, informing and mobilizing large numbers of people in contexts where electronic tools are easily accessible and widely used.
When to start a letter-writing or postcard campaign?
- If it is reasonably certain a sufficient number of people will write and send letters and e-mail messages, or join a sign-on letter campaign. A stakeholder analysis could be helpful in gauging the potential success of letter or postcard-writing activities.
- If there is a legal mechanism that obliges addressees to consider public letters – e.g. in some countries, city councils must receive citizens’ comments on planned infrastructure projects before implementing them – a useful entry point for campaigners for Safe Cities.
Practical tips for letter writing
- Provide templates or text “building blocks” that contain the main points the letter needs to include, so that supporters do not need to draft the entire letter. You may also use a sample letter that supporters can copy and adapt. There are new e-campaigning tools that allow online letters or petitions to be easily ‘signed’ by supporters and transmitted instantly to decision-makers.
- In the letter, point out a goal that is important to the recipient(s) and that can be attained by taking the action you call for.
- Encourage people in positions of authority to join the letter-writing campaign – one well-argued letter from an influential person or group can have more impact than hundreds of postcards.
- Make it explicit that you invite both women and men, and people from different backgrounds to write letters, so as to increase the number of letters and demonstrate that your cause is supported by a wide cross-section of society.
- If you use postcards, design them carefully so that they look appealing and convey the message in few words and images. Use a single, simple design to convey the message clearly. Again, e-campaigning tools have made e-postcards a useful way of engaging large numbers of supporters with internet access.
Detailed guidance on letter-writing campaigns or solidarity letters is available in the form of a 2009 guide by Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), Solidarity Actions: The Letter-writing Campaign.
Open letters are letters to decision-makers that are published through the media, so as to emphasize the addressee’s responsibility in the matter and to provoke a public debate. They are similar in structure to Open/Opinion Editorials. One can buy advertisement space to publish an open letter, if none of the newspapers contacted is ready to publish it free of charge (either as a letter to the editor, or an op-ed). Follow the tips on letter-writing above.
Petitions, in campaigning, are formal requests (in the form of letters or otherwise) made to a decision-maker, government or other public entity, that are signed by an individual, or a group of people in support of the cause
When to use petitions?
- If it is likely a large number of people will sign on to the group petition, or submit individual petitions to support the cause.
- If the government or institution addressed is bound by laws and policies that require it to respond to petitions. In some countries, public institutions run e-petition websites - see for example government sites from the UK and Germany.
A number of websites, such as The Petition Site explain the precise steps of creating on-line petitions (e-petitions). The Petition Site also presents a number of existing petitions, including on women’s rights. Change.org is a website that offers free petition tools that allow anyone to start, join and win campaigns.
Practical tips on petition writing
- Base the petition on a clear, single proposal (e.g. a specific change in law, or the release of a woman unjustly detained) and address it to the specific person or institution who can take the decision you ask for.
- Make the text short and clear. Test it with someone who knows nothing about the campaign before making it public to verify the petition for its clear and compelling style.
- Do not forget to include a space where people write their name and signature. Consider including extra space for contact details, as well as a box people can tick if they want to receive more information about your campaign – and follow up quickly if they do.
- Distribute the petition, most commonly via e-mail or other e-campaigning tools, and encourage as many people to sign on to the petition as possible. Make a special effort to get persons in positions of authority and other well-known people to sign on. Supporters need to send the petition back to the organizers so that it can be forwarded to the decision-maker addressed with the list of signatories.
- Publicize the handing over of the petition to the decision-maker, e.g. by inviting the media and writing a press release.
Bear in mind:
On-line petitions are an easy way to express support for a cause. But so many of them circulate that yours may not receive the required attention – unless you embed it into a wider campaign plan that mixes and matches several tools. Before signing on to a petition that reaches you, verify whether it is ethically sound (see Guiding Principles).