August 11, 2018

How to Organize a Phone Zap

Call-in campaigns, also known as “phone zaps,” have become an often used tool in a growing number of people’s tool boxes. Whether calling into prisons to get someone out of solitary or to restore access to the outside world, against slumlords in tenant battles, to get workers rehired, or attempts to get fascists fired, more and more groups are using the tactics in broader struggles.


Landlords, city council members, corporations and prison officials operate out of offices that still depend on phone access for doing business. Flooding offices with phone calls effectively blocks a portion of their ability to operate plus it often punctuates its message by driving an office to pure bedlam. It’s not like writing a letter to your congressperson – no one is making an appeal to established power. We aren’t engaging in dialogue but inducing a bit of crisis to shift power to ourselves. Think of it as a DDOS attack but an old thyme one that uses phone calls instead of server hits to bring down a target.

This bit of operational crisis helps extract concessions or push back on repression that doesn’t stand up well in the light of day.


Write a Concise Call to Action

You are speaking most likely to supporters or allies who don’t need your polemic or additional convincing. If there is a lot of additional background to convey, you can link or reference another article or post for those who need it. A giant rambling wall of text turns off motivation and engages next to no one.

Write a Sample Script

Plenty of people are self-conscious and a bit reluctant to call authority figures at some hostile institution. Throwing out an example of a brief message conveys the talking points reassures participants and gives them something to follow or expand on.

Pick Your Targets

Pick targets that will feel the pressure and are in some way vulnerable. Phone zaps for prisoners involves dealing with state bureaucracies and prison administrations. Avoid public relation officers and state directors; it's already their job to lie and handle bad PR.

At prisons for example, wardens are essentially middle management who fear for their jobs. That is a vulnerability.  The point is to have an organizational and political analysis of the institution you are messing with. Pick targets that get results or are vulnerable over anything else.

Once you've identified the targets, call them and make sure the numbers are still active and correct. There's nothing worse than trying to build a campaign, sending out a thousand emails with wrong or dead numbers on them.

Pick a Hashtag

A hashtag will help spread the word (more under Promote the Zap) and help yourself keep tabs on who's commiting.

Provide Multiple Numbers

Once someone commits to participate, they're oftentimes happy to call multiple numbers while they are at it. Rank them in order of importance and most importantly, test them.

Also, when all sorts of people are calling and taking over these offices with calls, it is often hard to get through. Give people a selection of numbers to call and they will keep trying, jumping from one number to the next – more calls land, more voicemail boxes get filled, and more pressure is applied.

Promote the Zap

Advance notice and dogged promotion makes an easily lost request into an event that looks worthwhile and actually is strategic, thoughtful and supported. Like with any online outreach or social media campaign, consider when people are logged on or how they stay in touch.

Use multiple channels and include the hashtag you picked – social media, email listservs, text messages, face to face meetings, etc. Get the call out in front of them multiple times. It’s a hectic world overloaded with media – you gotta cut through all that.

Set a Target Time Window

Set a day to shut that office down. Calls trickling in over a week don’t make an impression. Make that request for a supporter's time as concrete as possible. You can even have specific groups adopt chunks of time, ensuring you keep phones ringing throughout the day.

Live Updates

For the day of the zap, have one or more people commit to being on social media to post real-time updates. This counters officials' inevitable lies that no one has complained, adds to the zap's visibility and keeps momentum up for people calling in.

Great things to boost:

  • asinine quotes from officials
  • reports of phones being tied up
  • lies being told by officials
  • numbers of people calling in
  • when participants mention they called

Use the hashtag to follow people who are calling in and repost and boost them.

Follow Up

When an action is over, follow up immediately to let people know just how it all went, and follow up down the road to let people know what effect they had. Retain that commitment and energy. So much political work is like yelling into a black hole with little feedback or measurable success and is ultimately very draining and unsustainable. Phone actions actually yield immediate results.