Why Marcus Rashford’s campaign has been successful – and what organisations can learn from it
June 17, 2020

Marcus Rashford has won his campaign.  Yesterday the government performed a U-turn and agreed to allow 1.3million children in England to claim free school meal vouchers during the holidays.

Why has the 22-year-old Manchester United forward been successful in his campaign?  How did one young man end up changing government policy in a matter of days?  There are interesting lessons here for organisations running campaigns and for those who work in corporate communications

Rashford’s crusade was as powerful as it was simple.  In fact, its simplicity is part of the reason for its success.  He had a clear objective and a clear message.  So often organisations add caveats and qualifications and complicate what they’re saying.  Here the aim was expressed in simple language with a strong call to action. “Please reconsider your decision to cancel the food voucher scheme over the summer holiday period and guarantee the extension,” he wrote in his open letter.  Got that?  Millions of people did and finally the government did too.

The simplicity of the language, like the request itself is also powerful.  I can guarantee that if a committee were writing this it would be something about “demanding that the government launch an immediate review of its policy on food vouchers and associated nutrition with a view to implementing, within an appropriate timescale, a more equitable system of meal provision for our young people.”  Feel free to add your own clichés and unnecessary verbiage.

The second reason for Rashford’s effective communication is his personal story.  If he were a campaigner or an academic – worthy though he might be – his plea would never have had the power that it did.  Using your own story, introducing personal testament and your human experience, in other words, being your authentic self is incredibly powerful.  The media, when reporting on Rashford’s campaign, has focussed on his background growing up as part of a large family in Manchester with a mother struggling to put enough food on the table for her children.

Whenever I work with CEOs to create presentations, I’ll ask them about their lives.  Even in a media interview something as simple and as apparently throwaway as “I’ve got kids myself and…” or “I know whenever I buy something online…” sounds sympathetic and engaging.   The fact that as a young black footballer Rashford is not your typical campaigner.  Premier league footballers are more likely to be associated with a story about drunken excess or greed than about practical concern for young people.   This story ticks that essential “unusual” box of a good media story.

Rashford is also a great storyteller.  His open letter begins to MPs with a fantastically evocative bit of picture painting: “On a week that would have opened Euro 2020, I wanted to reflect back to 27 May 2016, when I stood in the middle of the Stadium of Light in Sunderland having just broken the record for the youngest player to score in his first senior international match. I watched the crowds waving their flags and fist-pumping the Three Lions on their shirts and I was overwhelmed with pride not only for myself but for all of those who had helped me reach this moment and achieve my dream of playing for the England national team.”  Wow!

Again, our committee would have opened with a bland, dreary, wordy preamble whose only Call to Action would have been “delete.”

The medium is important too here.  Rashford has a staggering 2.8million Twitter followers (I’m sure that he’s recruited a lot more since he began his campaign) and developing a trend on social media with a simple human message and hashtag is a great way to raise an issue.  The conventional media soon picked it up and that fed back to social media.  During this virtuous spiral of publicity, MPs – his real target audience –picked up on the issue.  I point out to people that MPs are slaves to, sorry, I mean, answerable to, their voters in the same way that the media are to their audiences.

Rashford’s reaction to his success is a model of humility in victory.  He said that he was “thankful” that families have “one less thing to worry about”, adding, “this was a cry out for help from vulnerable parents all over the country and I simply provided a platform for their voices to be heard.”  He Tweeted: “Just look at what we can do when we come together.  THIS is England in 2020.”

Congratulations on your victory, Marcus Rashford, we need more people like you.

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