Environmental Background
Information Center

Generic Strategy Guide

by Terry Swearingen and Brian Lipsett


It would be great if the old saying that "information is power" were true. Unfortunately, it isn't. Information is only a tool to get power. It's how you use it that really counts. That's where strategy - that is, planning - comes in. Here are some of our ideas on turning theory into practice and information into power.

Strategy is organic. Good strategy flows from the situation you are in - the assets and liabilities you have, the time and place and the condition of those whom your strategy aims to change. Good strategy is flexible. Good strategy doesn't follow any generic formula, even ours.

A strategy is different than a tactic. Your strategy is your overall plan, while tactics are the action steps to carry out that plan.

Tactics should flow from the strategy and the strategy ought to be a sensible composite series of tactics that shift depending on the actions of your adversary. If you are developing strategy for a group, develop it WITH the group. That's called "sharing ownership." If nobody in the group but you developed the strategy, then nobody owns it - and nobody but you is going to invest in it. It's also more fun.

The Basics: Getting People Involved

A single individual can accomplish a great deal. One person can initiate the process, be a spark-plug, a catalyst, or a cheerleader. However, all great leaders - whether they're famous or not - succeeded because they had other people.

We call the process of getting other people involved "organizing." All good leaders have people behind them. Remember the word teamwork - - together everyone achieves more.

If you are going to become a local community leader, you begin by talking to others about an issue that confronts you all. Don't be afraid to talk to other people about the problem - it's the way the process begins.

Do a bit of homework first. Identify the problem as best you can, so you can talk intelligently about it. However, you don't need to be a walking encyclopedia - after all, part of leadership is helping other people find their voice. If you overpower people with details, they won't talk.

You might find it helpful to create a petition as a tool to focus discussion on the issue. It's a question of style: in rural areas, people may prefer to just talk on first contact, while in some urban areas, people may prefer to get right down to business. Just remember that the trick to organizing is to do more listening than talking.

Talk to everyone you know about the issue, from neighbors and friends to legislators and administrators. People can't help you unless they know what the problem is.

Once you know there are more people affected than just yourself, the next step in organizing is to define your goals. What do you all really want to accomplish? People need to decide and settle upon exactly what they want and why so they won't back down in the thick of things.

Example: Citizens opposing a cement kiln burning hazardous waste demanded to see the results of the incinerator's trial burn to discover what pollutants were being emitted. However, their overall goal remained to stop the incinerator.

"Be reasonable, demand the impossible." This means that your strategy should be aimed at winning what you really want, not just what you think you can get. If you don't believe in yourself, you will probably fail. If you start by compromising, you'll never get near to what you really want.

Example: Chlorine needs to be banned, not just reduced, as a compound used in chemical manufacturing.

Plan, Act, Reflect: Repeat and Rinse

Once you research the issue, get people involved. Decide together on your goals. Develop a plan to reach those goals. Carry out your plan. Then think over what you would do differently next time. In starting this process;

Determine who has the power to give you what you want.
Tell the world you exist. Announce the formation of the group to the media in a news conference or press advisory. This accomplishes two things: It gets more people involved by letting the rest of the community know what's going on and alerts them to the time, date and place of the next meeting.
Start thinking real seriously about how you are going to use the information you have, what additional information you might want, where you need to go to get it, and what you will do with any further information that you get.

Now comes the tough part - Putting your information into action. How does your action plan tie in with your information? Unless information can be put to use, it can be an interesting fact, but basically useless in your quest for a solution to your problem

Sometimes an absence of information can be just as useful as the information itself:

A Virginia group discovered that the address listed on the dump permit application of a company was a vacant lot. Rather than get stuck by the lack of a true address, the group did a Halloween "Find the Phantom Dumper" action. Adults and children dressed in costumes went door to door in the neighborhood around the vacant lot listed on the permit application. By accident, they found out that the company owner lived near that vacant lot. When they went to his door, the man begged them to leave him alone admitting he was just a front for a bunch of New York City businessmen!
A community group in New York staged an action in the offices of a state agency that had refused to turn over information to the group. They went into the director's office with a group of children and asked for the information. When the director refused to turn over the info, the kids began eating chocolate bars. Wound up from the sugar, the kids then began pawing everything in the office, leaving their fingerprints everywhere. This action is called "the chocolate action."

Sometimes when you have good information, you need to find some creative - and fun - ways to present it. Here again, a little sense of humor goes a long way.

Several groups around the country have used a "talking outhouse" to call attention to a local issue. This action involves the use of a portable outhouse (preferably the old fashioned kind) set up in a public place. Put a person inside the outhouse to read the issues out loud and the names of relevant officials who should do something about them.

After you have taken "action," sit down with everyone and reflect. How did it go? What went well this time? What could we do better next time? What are we going to do next?

Strategy = Solving Problems Creatively

There are three common problems that groups run into when it comes to developing an information based strategy:

1) Overall Approach "Are we fighting to win, or are we fighting to make a point?" If you're fighting to win, your approach must reflect that. If you just want to make a point, you can simply follow the high school civics approach: Go to public hearings, politely and rationally argue your point, and lose. Plan A, below, is the high school civics approach. Plan B is a strategy aimed at creatively using your Constitutional Rights to actually win:

Plan A Plan B
Circulate a Petition Circulate a Petition
Go to Planning Meeting Hold a Group Meeting
Go to Health Board Meeting Hold a Press Conference at Health Meeting
Go to State Hearing Talking Outhouse Action
File a Lawsuit Hold Fundraising Carnival
Go to Meeting with Lawyer Conduct Public Accountability Session
Repeat above Steps Protest at City Hall
Over and Over Celebrate Each Victory

2) The Information Dump Approach. Some groups think that once they get the information together, they should just dump it on their local reporter, politician, or public official. Say you've got documentation that shows the backers of a proposed dead radioactive puppy dog incinerator have a long and complicated history of financial fraud. Don't just take that huge pile of paper you've been collecting for months and drop it on some reporter's desk, expecting the reporter to win your fight through some Pulitzer Prize winning expose. Facts do not win political fights - political organization does. Hold a press conference! Organize a protest. Do one thing, then another, but put the information you have into action.

Some organizers say that newspaper ink is the mother's milk of political organizing. As disgusting as this analogy sounds, you often need media attention to build your group, pressure your targets and advance your goals. Media coverage is so important that it calls for careful planning. Part of your research should include an assessment of the news media and what role they might play in your efforts.

You may decide, for example, that you will get the best coverage by teasing the media. Aim for a small story, then feed them a little more and then a little more information. Try to get the news media to ask your opposition the questions, rather than simply feed the news media with the answers. Give the opposition enough rope and they are sure to hang themselves.

Generally, you shouldn't pull the "information dump" on public officials either. Do your homework and think strategically. Rather than just pile all the information you have onto the nearest public official, ask yourself: Who has the authority to address my issue? What is their self interest? Do we know if they have any conflicts of interest? Do they have a history of taking action on these types of problems?

Then think about how you want to "package" your information. Consider when, where, and how you want to present your information. Generally, you should present your information in some systematic way. You should provide your interpretation of the information. Finally, you should attach a specific request or demand that the public official has the authority to grant.

Example: You go to a public meeting. After the corporation's representatives say how great they are, you start bringing up their history of violations. Activists have done this with great results. The company then has to start explaining the parts of the history they left out and in public! Consider going into the meeting with a pre-prepared press release stating your concerns and briefly summarizing the problems in the company's past and your demands. Make sure you give the release to the press before the meeting starts _ don't wait till they're rushing off to meet their deadline. Don't forget your punch line - the demand - which, in this example, could be a demand that the company's request be denied because of their track record.

3) Researching an Issue to Death Some members of the group may insist on absolute certainty, "We need more information, more research before we can do anything." You will need to use your good common sense to decide when you have enough information to be able to act. Gathering information is a never ending process. But if you want to know it all, it may be too late by the time you do.


  • Media Means, Barbara Sullivan, CCHW, Falls Church, 1987, 703-237-2249
  • Research Guide for Leaders, Will Collette, CCHW, Falls Church, 703-237-2249
  • Reveille for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, Vintage Books, New York, 1989
  • Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, Vintage Books, New York, 1989
  • The Art of War, Sun-Tzu, 6th Century BC, University Press, New York, 1963
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    Last modified: June 22, 1997