Building strong attendance at rallies and actions is a key skill for campaigners and organisers. Holly Hammond recently spoke with Victoria McKenzie-McHarg from Environment Victoria, who shares her excellent tips here.

Interested in this topic? Come along to the next Melbourne Campaigners’ Network session ‘Turnout: Mobilising your base‘, 6-8pm, Thursday 21 June at the Wheeler Centre, 176 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne.


Hi Victoria! Can you let us know about some of the rallies and actions you’ve been involved in organising and building attendance at?

Since joining Environment Victoria in late 2007 I’ve coordinated the Walk Against Warming events with turn outs up to 50,000 and a number of other community events include electorate wide letterboxing events and doorknocking days and numerous smaller rallies.

Walk Against Warming, 2009

What do you think motivates people to turn up at rallies and actions? What gets in the way?

It’s different for everyone, but the key to motivating a strong turn out is framing your issue in a way that relates to people. While some of us love a rally, unless you communicate in a way that resonates and is real for individuals, most people aren’t going to want to give up a Saturday with their kids or an afternoon at the beach to stand with a bunch of ‘angry greenies’. You’ve got to make it a real concern for them, and show them how their action can make a difference.

From your perspective, how is it going getting people to turn up at rallies and actions for environmental causes in Victoria?

It’s never easy to get people to turn out to events – it takes a lot of work and there are a number of factors at play. Supporter or public understanding of your issue, whether or not the campaign has reached a ‘peak’ point, the background work you’ve done with your committed supporters, and even factors like the weather and time of year all contribute to whether your turn-out will be successful.

The levels of interest in any issue are constantly changing, and you need to be aware of this in order to time your events for the best impact. People might still care about an issue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to come out to a rally about it. Gauging public interest and supporter interest is essential to make sure your event is a success and that you don’t burn out your most committed supporters by asking them to attend too many events, or events that are disappointing.

What are some of the things you’ve learnt about building strong attendance?

Number one, you need to pick your timing and your framing. Comparing the Walk Against Warming in 2007, 2008 and 2009 is an example of why this is important. We had a fever pitch of concern around climate change in 2007, and people felt that change was coming. They were also angry with John Howard and his government’s inability to act on climate change. It was this frustration that led to such a massive event which was a real game-changer in terms of understanding how strongly much of the community felt about this issue. Almost 50,000 people attended the Melbourne event that year.

In 2008, Kevin Rudd had been elected, the CPRS was on the table with a 5% emissions reduction table, and it was clear to our committed supporters that this wasn’t enough. But the general public still felt that they wanted to give Rudd a chance and they saw that he was doing something about climate change. This attitude was fairly extensive even within the broader environmentally-aware community. As a result our turn-out was much lower – less than 10,000. In retrospect, I wonder if we shouldn’t have held the Walk that year.

But in 2009, the game had changed again. The Copenhagen negotiations were on, and the broader community was aware that this was the opportunity to get the global action that we needed. The media hype around Copenhagen helped stir the concern, and the timing was ripe for another major rally with almost 40,000 in attendance.

Secondly, it’s promotion, promotion, promotion. And by that I mean bread-and-butter, on-the-ground campaigning – not just online promotion. This is really the not-so-secret key to a big turn out. Every time we coordinate a big event I get loads of volunteers saying they want to be involved in logistics, debates about the poster logos, or that they want to help with our website. All of this is actually the easy part. Logistics can be organised by one or two people, and communications like posters and flyers should never be decided by committee but by communications experts. But the one thing that makes the biggest difference is getting out and about in the community with your promotional material. That means postering, letterboxing, handing out flyers at train stations, getting local media angles up on your event, and making sure every cafe, cinema, garden nursery and kindergarten has posters and flyers available.

Finally, the way you work with other organisations is key to making a big event a success.  Make sure that other organisations have buy-in to the event so that they are genuinely interested in making it a success. If your event is heavily branded as your own, other organisations will be less willing to promote it. Make it as easy for other groups – large or small – to be involved and help promote. Think about what it is that their supporters/clients/staff will be interested in and angle it to them specifically. That might mean a slightly different message needs to be formed for unions, churches, permaculture groups, teachers, nurses etc. This takes a bit more work, but is definitely worth the outcome if those groups understand how the event is relevant to them and get involved.

Any definite ‘don’t dos’ you’d like to share with other campaigners?

DON’T write a flyer or poster by committee. This is one of the most often repeated mistakes of campaigners and community groups that I’ve seen in events. If you’re involved in organising an event, chances are you know and care more about it than 99 percent of the population. Therefore the message that works for you is likely to be different to the message that works for everyone else. Make sure you listen to communications advice and even if you don’t have experts on board with your event, try and keep those involved in the process to a minimum. Spending hours debating a line on a poster is hours that you are not spending promoting your event in the community.

Secondly, don’t rely solely on online promotion for a big event. This might be enough for a couple of hundred, and if you’re an organisation with a massive list like GetUp you might even be able to get a couple of thousand with the right issue – but it’s not enough for most organisations, and not for tens of thousands to turn-out. People need to see reminders about your event as often as possible so get out in the streets and into the places that people go.

In the interests of building a good turnout, do you have any upcoming actions you’d like to promote?

Right now we’ve got one month to get the Federal Government to seal the deal over replacing Hazelwood and other dirty coal-fired power stations with clean energy. We don’t have a large scale event planned, but we are looking to letterbox three electorates in the next three weeks. It’s all hands on deck to make sure key decision makers understand how strong community support for this campaign is, and we’d love any help we can get. Sign up to help us Replace Hazelwood here.

About the interviewee

Victoria McKenzie-McHarg is the Safe Climate Campaigner at Environment Victoria, one of the state’s leading non-government, not-for-profit environmental groups. Victoria in engaged in climate policy development and works with communities across Victoria to press for action on climate change at the local, state and federal level. Victoria has led some of the state’s most significant climate campaigns, including the campaign to Replace Hazelwood, Australia’s dirtiest power station, with clean energy. In 2011 Victoria was named by The Age Melbourne Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential Victorians due to her work on the campaign to stop HRL, a proposed new coal-fired power station from going ahead in Victoria. Prior to joining Environment Victoria, Victoria worked in international development both in Australia and the UK and has worked across the not-for-profit sector. Victoria majored in Communications and Politics at Swinburne University.


Interested in this topic? Come along to the next Melbourne Campaigners’ Network session ‘Turnout: Mobilising your base‘, 6-8pm, Thursday 21 June at the Wheeler Centre, 176 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne.

Walk Against Warming 2009 and Replace Hazelwood photos by Takver, used under creative commons licence. Thanks!