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Was Occupy Wall Street a PR Failure?

Today a number of Occupy Wall Street supporters were back in downtown Manhattan planning to surround and block access to the New York Stock Exchange; dozens have already been arrested, but you probably won’t hear too much about related events in the week to come unless you follow politics closely.

Why? Because the public at large seems to have moved on—and so have many former supporters. Some members of the movement would like to re-take their place in the spotlight, but from where we sit it looks like Occupy’s moment in the public square has all but come and gone.

On the first anniversary of the original Zucotti Park gathering, everyone’s asking: What went wrong? What went right? Without commenting on the ideology behind Occupy, we’d like to examine the group’s PR strategy.

One thing can’t be denied: Occupy got the world’s attention, and it inspired American media figures to spend more time discussing income equality and the effect of wide-scale financial crimes on the general public than ever before. History has taught us that acts of civil disobedience, especially when coordinated and executed on a large scale, can quickly attract the interests of the outside world. All international news organizations reported on Occupy, and the phrase “We Are the 99%”, however you may feel about it, had real staying power.

The real problem lies in the follow-up, however.

Anyone can make noise, but unlike the Tea Party movement, Occupy clearly wasn’t set up to make dramatic changes in America’s economic and political systems–so its current spot on the sidelines was all but inevitable. As The New York Times ethics columnist Joe Nocera put it this weekend, the movement ensured the limits of its own power by refusing to participate in the system that some hoped it might help to improve. The only semi-official “Occupy” candidate for public office won less than 800 votes in a primary-season attempt to unseat veteran Brooklyn Representative Nydia Velazquez.

Now that the limits of Occupy’s political power have become clear, what about its PR legacy? Based on this Twitter response to the question “What has #OWS accomplished in its first year,” quite a few people hold negative impressions of the movement—even though they may not be ideologically opposed.

Let’s put it this way: Occupy’s concerns about maintaining internal purity and an open-forum framework ultimately trumped its interest in earning the continued respect and attention of the public, so organizers shouldn’t be surprised that many Americans have lost interest.

PR pros: Beyond political affiliations, what are your thoughts on the history and management of the Occupy movement? From a public image perspective, what do supporters need to do to continue pushing their message–and to make sure that message leads to real political action?

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