Reflecting on Marriage Equality five years on

2018 marks five years on from New Zealand’s Marriage Equality campaign. It was an absolute privilege to lead the campaign’s digital communications and social media, bringing hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders – from diverse background, faiths and political persuasions – together to campaign for something that meant so much to so many.

For me, the debate was of personal significance – it was about being equal with my friends and family – but it was also an incredible lesson in the way we can use the power of the internet and story to cause significant social change.

I was lucky enough to sit on the Cross-Party Committee on Marriage Equality and saw how the campaign was run inside Parliament. It was a fantastic example of great stakeholder management – lots of direct engagement with MPs by members of the committee to address their concerns and take them on a journey to support equality. We identified the marginal MPs we needed to support to get them on the right side of history, ensured they talked to people who would be positively affected by the law change, were lobbied appropriately by their constituents and had someone to talk to about their concerns. By taking these MPs on a journey and making them feel comfortable, and by countering the aggressive voices of those who opposed our movement with sense, kindness and love, we were able to win many of their votes.

A massive tool in our arsenal was the voices of those passionate about making marriage equality happen. These people were often personally affected by the Bill – they were Kiwis who wanted to get married – or they wanted to see their friends and family able to marry.  People were so keen to help, and we needed to ensure their voices were used most effectively (and that they didn’t get too over-enthusiastic and say the wrong thing – a significant issue our opposition faced).

We predominantly used Facebook to engage with our supporters, encouraging them to share content to show their support, to talk to their friends and family and, most importantly, engage with the politicians ultimately deciding on how to vote. Volunteers built online tools that helped supporters contact MPs directly and submit to the Select Committee process. Without a doubt, the huge scale of personal contact from people who genuinely cared about the progress of the Bill made a difference, particularly when compared with the largely form-written submissions from opponents of the Bill.

It was incredible to hear stories about the warm responses supporters received from MPs and the positive glow they felt from being involved in the democratic process in such an important way. It was also amazing to hear from MPs directly about the impact that it was having on them and how our opponents’ tactics were often strengthening their support for the Bill.

Looking back five years on, I’m so proud to have been a part of a campaign that brought so much joy to so many people.

And from a ‘work perspective,’ it showed that with the right balance of strategic communications, movement building and stakeholder management, you can achieve something that once felt impossible.

(As a former political staffer on the left, I’m proud that my one appearance on David Farrar’s right-wing KiwiBlog (to date!) is in praise of the work I did on the campaign:

“Andrew Burns did an amazing job with social media on the campaign. I was staggered by the reach of the campaign’s congratulatory message on Facebook. Within an hour of the vote, I think the message had reached almost half a million people and been shared by over 5,000 to all their networks.”see here.)