The art of Campaigning

What's it like to be a Consumer Campaigner?

Is it just about regurgitating facts?

Or, does it require more than just offering a comment on social media?

You know working on Consumer matters requires a great deal of time, research and patience. You need to understand not just the issues, but also the laws or standards that underpin the very elements of what keeps Consumers protected.

Since 1997, I initially represented Consumers on travel-related matters and then developed more complex representation through deficits in medical services right the way through to serious injury, one of which was a fatal aircrash.

From 2003, that experience led me to becoming the owner and Director of what was then the foremost Travel Consumer Organisation, that not only spanned the UK, but received calls for assistance from across the globe. That knowledge made us realise at the time, that it was vital to bring ordinary people’s stories and experiences to the front door of politicians and civil servants. In the course of time, over 70 major reports were submitted, not just to Westminster, but right into the heart of decision-making in the European Union, Australia and the United States.

Making laws to protect Consumers is long and arduous and requires a good understanding of the issues of those who oppose the positions you present. 

You also discover an additional layer within this Consultative process, populated by small organisations, charities and individuals, all seeking to have their voices heard - to effect that much needed change. 

You also encounter what I refer to as the Consumer Establishment, which is made up of a number of popular and not so well-known names, who through their individual organisations and sometimes collectively, present the Consumer position. With this latter grouping, I have tried (I know others have tried also) to engage, to strategise. In some cases I failed to achieve that engagement with the Consumer Establishment without any understanding of their rationale. 

Perhaps it is a question of style. The non-Consumer Establishment are not tied to a corporate approach to their work and are able to freely seek the solutions, perhaps because they are single issue Campaigns or maybe it is simply that they are closer to the Consumer coalface. It is difficult for me to comment on the operations of the Consumer Establishment, but they are closer to government and I can imagine their pressures require a different style of dialogue. 

I remember at one Stakeholder’s meeting in Brussels, I was asked to address the then 27 Member States as how to reform the then Package Travel Directive. 

I presented, along with my colleagues on the stage, setting out a very clear position on reform. 

One Consumer Establishment representative, made their presentation, which barely covered the key issues at stake. They then quietly took me to one side and advised me that I had presented my case incorrectly and that the correct way to create change is not to tell the decision-makers everything you wanted - to hold back - don’t display your cards - bide your time. I told them that I couldn’t disagree with them more. What was required was a clear strategy, openness and ambition. 

I never saw them again at any other meeting and I continued with my ‘independent’ work, meeting with decision-makers, advocating for change and I saw those changes delivered! 

I came to the view that no-one has the monopoly on knowing what the best solutions are for Consumer Protections, and that it would be better to listen to each other, respect opinions and to work together to create a credible unified strategy. My experience has demonstrated that this ambition of working together is easier to achieve with non-Establishment organisations and individuals; these have proven to be effective, time and time again.

On the other side, there exists a sophisticated Industry machine, very well used to the game that is politics and are up to the challenge to ensure that their voice is heard. They do so by presenting a Public harmony, whatever about their background disagreements or the constant competitiveness between them. They meet, strategise, agree to disagree and present a coherent voice for their overall message, which is generally deregulation or creating an old/new status quo, covered with a new coat of paint!

One experience I had, followed a Stakeholders meeting in which I publicly challenged the views of a very senior representative of an Aviation Trade Body. Not only were they besides themselves in rage but demanded to understand how I was funded (full details were published on my then website), accusing me of being in the pockets of who knows what, whilst missing the irony of their own funding and lobbying activities. In another case, after giving testimony before a Select Committee at the House of Commons, a Senior Member of the Travel Industry disdainfully approach me outside, stating that they obviously now had to speak with me and promptly threw their business card at me, from a distance of 3 metres. In another encounter, with a senior representative of the fuel industry, I sought to bring them, myself and other Campaigners together to seek a meeting of minds, to narrow the issues. In that case, the representative refused on the basis that he would not meet with X or Y because they were ‘extreme’.

Despite these encounters, I have been fortunate, because I have managed to open doors and cultivate contacts and have met with some truly remarkable people within the political arena. I have taken part in not just Public Consultations, but have also been included or invited to impact assessments and private meetings, with high-ranking officials in government. These latter meetings are very powerful and can prove fruitful when seeking to have included a provision into a law or just simply to discuss or influence a policy.

Having wandered the halls of power, I can truly say that the most effective arena to date has been that found in the European Union and despite Brexit, because of my long-held dual-citizenship, I shall be able to continue to take advantage of that route, to advocate change for Consumers.

But whilst this is a great trip down memory lane, the work of a Consumer Campaigner is best illustrated through one of my most important projects to-date, that of Cabin Air Quality.

Many Consumers are oblivious to the potential problems that exist within the aircraft environment, which is primarily affected by chemical or toxin leakage into that environment. I first became aware of the issue through Consumers back in 2006 and since that date, I have worked to try and help find a way to bring about not just a better understanding of the problem but to seek some legislative or standards change, to improve that environment and reduce the health risk to aircrew and passengers.

The world of Cabin Air Quality has introduced me to, not only passionate people but also a system of regulation that is generally not legislative in nature and is non-binding on an Industry. 

It is an extremely powerful lobby.

It has demonstrated to me the disparate method of ‘regulating’ this important area and I discovered fairly early on, through a meeting at the European Aviation Safety Agency in Cologne, that there was puzzlement as to why a Consumer Campaigner should have anything of value to contribute to this work. 

There was also puzzlement, when along with other Campaigners, a challenge was made to the then existing European Standard in 2012, on the basis that it was, like official Aviation Regulation, written by the Industry itself, with no aircrew of passenger representation. The arguments that were made proved successful and led to the repeal of the then Standard and the accompanying Standard in development and the reformation of this work with the inclusion of a very wide Stakeholder cohort.

That work began in 2014/15 and has culminated in what is hoped to be a final draft Standard, bringing together many disparate issues into one encompassing document.

But the road to this work has been long and at times rocky, with two very clearly defined camps.

By the middle of 2015, it was clear that unless there was some meeting of minds, there was a substantial risk that the work would collapse and the world of Aviation would be left with its comfortable range of Standards that govern this area. So with several Campaigners, we set about to build bridges between the camps. Some rejected the approaches whereas others embraced the opportunity; it changed the course of dialogue and cooperation.

That cooperation led to debate and understanding of the key issues that were important to all. It also dealt with the most important issue which was fear, Fear that voices would be lost; fear that change would lead to a financial unreality, fear for example that without knowing the levels at which to measure chemical compounds, you would be left with something that would be ineffective.

But on this latter point, what was remarkable was the coming together of minds, a near consensus that perhaps we were putting the cart before the horse; we needed to understand the range of Chemical Compounds potentially found within an aircraft and understand the levels that they present themselves. In the meantime, the European Union created the FACTS project which aims to partially answer that question but also to determine issues of toxicity, particularly with regards to the scale or levels of particulate matter.

Out of these discussions came a very comprehensive draft, bringing together the Precautionary Principle along with some previously unheard of methodologies to improve and present innovation through this draft Standard. This work has been made all the stronger by the Public Enquiry into the draft Standard, creating a very unique document indeed.

Unfortunately, along the way, a few Stakeholders disengaged at a time when their experience could have helped the discussions.

Whilst the work of Consumer Campaigners is often done in meeting rooms, in private, there comes a point when the media acquires an interest and in this work; we have seen this aspect through recent articles found in the German news journals of Hadelsblatt and Derr Spiegal. The articles tell the weary tale on the work of this Standard and provides a less than rosy view of what has been achieved. In short, I have been surprised and somewhat disappointed in what I have read. It is as if some are seeking to raise arguments that are now old and form no part of the overall discussions. Some question the safety benefit to aircrew and passengers. There is less of a positive commentary on the last 6 years, which is a pity, particularly as a Public Body, the European Aviation Safety Agency, an Executive Agency of the European Union, obligated to action by Regulation, the Treaty and of the Single Market, has offered a somewhat retro view of the world of Cabin Air Quality. I could say much more about their “willingness” to engage with Campaigners, often only done when the stick prods the bear, but I’ll save that for another time. Their comments and their method of communicating their disagreement to the work, even though they have been in the room, diminishes in my view their important role in this debate; it is something that the Commission should pay particular attention to!

But am I surprised by such an article, initially yes, but of course I have seen similar press or PR commentary in other areas of work - it is but one aspect of Campaigning?

For the avoidance of doubt, no one should doubt my belief that this new Cabin Air Quality Standard will go a long way to improve our flight experience and ultimately deliver cleaner air and better health for aircrew and passengers; I would never subscribe to something that would import a danger for Consumers. I know that I am joined in this belief by other aviation users and a great many within the Aviation Industry!

As I reflect on my years of Consumer work and in particular in the Cabin Air Quality arena, I think about the reality of the world post-COVID and the continuing role of Campaigners. Some feel that given the disinterest shown by the UK government to Campaigning, there is not much point in carrying on. I disagree.

Now more than ever, we need independent voices to cry out against an injustice or wrong; now more than ever with economic collapse and political impotence knocking on nation’s doors, the role of independent campaigning is more relevant. Now more than ever, with new and intelligent technologies and algorithms about to change our world, accompanied by voices that cry that there is no need to concern ourselves about old technology or practices, we need independent voices that are anchored in old technology but advocate for innovation and care into the future.

I believe now more than ever, we need to move our societies away from the stale model of the shareholder primacy economy towards a stakeholder economy. That requires a different inclusivity, a willingness to engage by Industry and the Consumer Establishment, but above all a desire to achieve a respectful consensus; a consensus that does not fall in to the trap of running back to the comfort blanket of past arguments or methodologies.

As I look around at my colleagues, I can report that the age of the Independent Campaigner is refreshed and is here to stay!

(This is the script used by Frank in his CreatingRipples™ Podcast - The art of Campaigning. You can listen to his Podcast here)