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Petition hell – or, how not to write an online petition

on June 9, 2015

petition 2

change

Petition

petition 3

I’m not a massive believer in the effectiveness of online petitions to be honest, but it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, as they say. And usually if someone I know posts, signs or shares a petition and it’s for a worthy cause I’ll sign it too, and probably share it on my Facebook wall.

Over the past couple of months I’ve even had the dubious privilege of publishing two petitions on Change.org. And I put a fair bit of work into making them comprehensible, and as easy as possible to read and understand. I set out the issue which led to the petition as clearly as I could, did a few minutes Google searching to find the names and contact details for the people responsible for making the decisions on the matters in the petitions, and included them in the petition so that the emails generated when people signed were addressed to specific individuals with the power to do something about the issue. I’m sure the mayor of my town is deeply grateful to me for this, as I included all 3 of his email addresses on a petition and the 700+ signatures generated over 2,000 emails for him to read/delete. But such is the price he pays for his position of power and influence 🙂

So I don’t have anything against online petitions. However tonight I reached the point of maximum frustration with them, as within a very short space of time I came across not one, not two, but three petitions that are very badly written and stand little or no chance of being taken seriously. Apart from sharing them on Facebook as examples of crappy petitions it occurred to me that it might be an idea to write a blog post sharing the reasons why I think they’re bad, in case there’s anyone out there who is thinking of writing their first petition and wants some advice. I have removed the names of the authors of these petitions. But they know who they are, and should resolve to do better next time.

Anyway, here’s my two pence worth about why these petitions are rubbish:

Exhibit A – a petition asking the Faroe Islands to stop slaughtering pilot whales.

Faroes

Seems like a reasonable idea, right? No-one (apart from the whalers and their misguided supporters) likes to see pilot whales being slaughtered in the way shown in the photo. But take another look at who the petition is addressed to – The Faroe Islands. Yes, the actual islands. Not a person responsible for governing the islands, or for regulating the grind (the name given to the whale murder) but to the islands themselves. Pieces of land in the ocean. Not known for their ability to stop people doing stupid/barbaric things. Otherwise we’d all have been toast a long time ago. A couple of minutes research could have turned up the name of someone who could be named as a decision maker about this issue, and naming them on the petition would ensure that they would receive an email from each of the 401 people who have signed the petition so far. Here’s a clue – the government of the Faroe Islands has a website. In English. With contact details for the Prime Minister on it. But no-one is mentioned on this petition, so no-one will get any emails or even be notified that the petition exists. Which makes the existence of the petition pointless. Yet people are continuing to sign and share it on Facebook. Which really makes me wonder if people read petitions before signing them.

Exhibit B – STOP THE NUMBER OF ANIMALS GETTING KILLED

Animals

Now if you’re a vegan, like me, you probably think this is a good idea, even if it is shouted in capital letters. Stop killing the animals, encourage everyone to love tofu and worship seitan and we can all live happily ever after. Lovely. But once again we have the problem of who the petition is addressed to – government. Just that, government. No idea which government. So here again we have a petition that’s addressed to no-one in particular and which is therefore pointless. And almost 4,500 people have signed it. Admittedly this is more than a little short of the author’s target of 5 million signatures. But why are people signing this piece of crap? Do they believe in the existence of one global government which can take action across the whole planet? Maybe there is, and I just haven’t heard of it, but in this case I imagine there are possibly more pressing problems for them to deal with than to STOP THE NUMBER OF ANIMALS GETTING KILLED. Even if it is written entirely in capitals.

And finally, the petition that started me off on this rant.

Exhibit C – Declear Asian Elephants as National Treasurer in all ASEAN Countries. (I’m not kidding, that’s really the title)

Elephants

Now I’m sure elephants have fantastic accounting skills – after all, they’re said to never forget, which probably makes them very good at remembering where the money goes – but I fail to see why this gives them a right to be declared (or decleared) national treasurer in all ASEAN countries. Isn’t there some sort of job application process for this? And does it conflict with equal opportunities legislation? What if the orang utans want to be national treasurer? Or Sumatran tigers? Or Komodo dragons? I wouldn’t want to argue with any of them about the issue.

But seriously, if you’re writing a petition, do check your spelling and grammar before publishing. That way you avoid putting gems like this into the public realm:

“Believe it or not, ivory poaching is still exist even today. Two weeks ago, in Thailand, 50 years old elephant was poisoned and killed for its ivory. This elephant victim was stared in movie “Alexandra”.”

Just imagine. Staring at elephants. Starers intimidating them with their evil eyes…

I will give the author of this petition some credit for having the sense to address it to an organisation, which might be in a position to take some action (if they can make any sense of it). Judging by the photo on their website they’re a friendly-looking bunch of people who probably do their best to do a good job. They have a nice professional website which includes names of key staff, and contact details. So why insult them by presenting them with such a badly written petition? 429 people have signed this petition already, which really makes me despair.

Here’s an example of what I consider to be a good petition

Whales

It’s well written, clear, and addressed to an individual – the Prime Minister of the Faroe Islands. In fact it’s so good I think I’ll be using it as a reference point for any future petitions I write. This is the kind of petition I would encourage people to sign – and indeed over 29,000 people have already done so. You can add your signature here.

It’s great that people take the time and trouble to write petitions about things they care passionately about. And done properly petitions can influence people and organisations and they have been known to get results. A little care and attention when drafting a petition will help to make it clear and coherent and therefore more likely to be taken seriously. So here are my tips for writing a decent petition:

1. Be realistic, and clear. No petition is going to change the world overnight. So setting up a petition to STOP KILLING ANIMALS is unlikely to get very far. But you can explain what the problem is, and what you would like to be done about it. Without being abusive or over emotional. OR OVERUSING CAPITALS.

2. Address your petition to a specific individual or organisation. Preferably one that can do something about the problem, or can refer the matter to someone who can at least investigate it. If no-one’s name is on the petition as a decision maker then no-one gets the emails from the signatories and the matter will remain unresolved.

3. Spell check. And then spell check again. And again. Make sure that the names of the people and organisations named in the petition are spelled correctly. Spelling them incorrectly pisses people off and makes them a lot less likely to be helpful.

4. If you’ve published a petition and realise that it contains a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. But edit the petition and correct the mistakes. This isn’t rocket science.

Good luck with your future petitions. I will be happy to sign and share them, as long as they’re well written, realistic and correctly addressed. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

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