I usually don’t like using war analogies or strategies when talking about civic campaigns. War conjures up thoughts of brutal fighting, winners and losers, survivors and those who perish. On the other hand, civic campaigns – good civic campaigns – seek win-win solutions when possible, producing outcomes that benefit all involved.

Nevertheless, I’m turning to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, probablythe most famous piece of military writing in history, for inspiration today.   The reason?  I think that one of its most well-known lines – “becoming water when faced with a rock” – actually teaches us more about avoiding battle, and fits perfectly into civic campaign strategy.

In almost every civic campaign there is a set of decision makers.  They can be elected officials, leader of a department or bureaucratic body, or a company CEO. Other times the decision maker is the leader of a local grassroots organization or community group.  If the civic campaign is lucky, these decision makers quickly and easily agree its objectives.  But more often than not, the decision maker plays the role of antagonist – one who must be brought to understand and support your position.  In other words, they are the Rock.

Many campaigns try and go directly at the rock, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly.  They think that if they just direct all their attention and campaign activities at the rock, the rock will crumble – but so might the campaign.  This is where coalitions, the Water in our little metaphor, become important.

A smart civic campaign will build a large and diverse coalition of supporters – individuals as well as organizations – to support their cause.  A smart civic campaign will also reach out to key influencers of the Rock. By building this kind of organization in the campaign, you are letting the Water surround the Rock, making it almost impossible for the Rock to move (i.e. oppose your issue).

To use a personal example, let’s look at my client’s campaign to change the stigma-laden name of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Human Services.  A key decision maker was a conservative member of the legislature in a leadership position.  In order to gain his support, the campaign developed a very large and diverse coalition representing all regions, types of organizations, and political ideology.  It also sought – and gained – support from a wide majority of legislators in both houses.  Ultimately, this flood (har har) of support made it easier for the key legislative decision maker to back the name change and, ultimately, help lead the effort.

In the end, if the civic campaign is smart, the Rock is allowed to stand still.  That way, any future situations in which you may need to stand on the Rock for other issues, it will be there to support you. This is exactly what happened with the example above – the legislative leader has now become a champion on many other issues important to the name change coalition.  After all, if water pushes against the rock long enough, eventually it will go with the flow.