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Learn how to uncover information that will help you understand your opponent’s positions, counter their strengths, exploit their vulnerabilities, and negotiate with them.


  • What does it mean to study your opponents?

  • What will you gain from studying your opponents?

  • When should you study your opponents?

  • How should you study your opponents?

  • How far should you go?

What does it mean to study your opponents?

Most advocacy campaigns meet with some opposition, and part of the planning process involves identifying the particular opponent that you will be taking on, and the type of resistance this opponent is likely to put up. This section of the Tool Box will help you to study your opponents in more detail and put your knowledge to good use.

Of course, not every community issue will have opponents. If you want to train new parents, or keep the library open on Saturdays, or put town government meetings on cable television, you may not have opponents at all. But if you are for (or against) a school bond issue, or against (or for) a commercial development, or if you take a position on a controversial issue of the day such as gun control, the death penalty, or abortion, then, almost always, some people will oppose you. Those people may be at least as powerful as you. And in those cases, gathering information about your opponents can help determine your group's strategy and tactics.

If you are running a full-fledged campaign that fits within the definition of advocacy, an opponent is probably part of the mix. You'll be trying to get a larger agency or institution to do something that it probably does not want to do. And this body (plus its supporters) is your opponent.

Who are your opponents?

In many cases, the identity of your opponents will be crystal clear. They are the reason you started this campaign in the first place. In other cases, you may find that some agencies or groups which seem at first sight to be opposed to you are either not really opposed, or are easy to win round. It's important to remember that, on many issues, there is likely to be a spectrum of opinion – people will support or oppose the issue in varying degrees. It's helpful here to be aware of the full spectrum, to see the whole landscape of community opinion, to know who stands where.

But let's suppose that you have a clearly defined opponent--and let's look at the advantages of a little research.

What will you gain from studying your opponents?

Studying your opponents can give you the following benefits:

  • It will give you up to date knowledge of the opponent's positions on the issue
  • You will know why the opponent is taking those positions - what he, she, they or it can gain from taking the line that they are
  • You will learn about strategies and tactics they have used in the past, and this knowledge can help you plan your own tactics and strategies
  • It can tell you where your opponents are vulnerable - and, perhaps more important, where you’re vulnerable to them
  • It will force you to refine your arguments, your message, and your strategy in order to put yourself in the strongest possible position
  • It will help you identify the moral and ethical high ground - if there is one: both sides could be engaged in something that each believes is in the best interests of all - and to occupy it

How can you use this knowledge?

There are a number of immediate advantages:

  • You may be able to identify potential problems earlier on, and sort them out before they become bigger problems. For example, let's look at drug use. It can begin as a small problem among a few friends. This can escalate to a large drug abuse problem through peer pressure and lack of education.
  • You may find that you and your opponent have at least some things in common and that you can use this common ground as the basis for negotiations. Who knows - you might actually be able to collaborate on common goals.
  • You can use your knowledge of what makes the opponent tick to develop more effective counter-arguments, as well as more successful strategies and tactics.

When should you study your opponents?

Unless you and your group are planning a quick-hit advocacy campaign and don't plan on doing anything more about the issue, you will probably want to conduct at least some study of your opponents near the beginning of the campaign. After all, your whole strategy may depend on knowing:

  • Why the opponent takes this line
  • What the realistic alternatives are
  • How likely the opponent is to negotiate

And so on.

Remember: Studying your opponents is not a one-time deal – it's an ongoing process. Your opponents, and the nature of their opposition, are likely to change over time; your response may need to change as well.

How should you study your opponents?

If you have the resources, an in-depth investigation will have the most value. But even informal investigation can help, as you'll see just below.

Informal methods

In general, it is a good idea to keep your eyes and ears open. Start by looking at your opponent's previous activities and campaigns. Read their in-house publications and annual reports. Talk to organizations who have dealt with your opponents in the past. Read the newspaper regularly. Seek out other people in the community who are or have been close to your opponents – they may have a pretty good idea of what your opponents may be up to.

If your main opponents are individuals, you can come up with these (and other) facts:

  • Where do your opponents work?
  • Where do your opponents live?
  • What clubs and associations to they belong to?
  • What boards of directors are they members of?
  • Where do they do their banking?
  • Who gives them legal, political, and other advice?

If your main opponents are agencies, companies or organizations, you can dig up this type of information:

  • What have your opponents done in the past?
  • What are their favorite tactics?
  • What are their resources?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • Who are their principal decision makers?
  • Why are they opposing you?
  • What power do they have?
  • What other organizations and sectors of the community do they have strong connections to?   Who are their active allies?  Whom do they influence?

If you can't get answers to questions like these by checking around town informally – and checking a few directories – you may need a more formal method of inquiry.

Formal methods: the tactical investigation

A tactical investigation is more elaborate and time-consuming than the informal methods mentioned above. It's not for casual use. Instead, it's best suited for situations in which you have powerful opponents who are heavily invested in positions opposite to your own, and who are willing and able to act forcefully against your deepest beliefs.

A tactical investigation can help you and your group identify weaknesses of your opponent, which you can then exploit to your advantage. So they want to play hardball? You may decide you want to play hardball, too.

Here are four steps that will show you how:

Develop an investigation plan

You don't have to be an expert to conduct your tactical investigation. However, you do need a plan to tell you specifically what to look for. Your investigation plan should answer the following questions:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What information are you looking for?
  • Where can you find it?
  • What is the timeline for each phase of the investigation?

When you can answer these questions, you still have to find the information, which can be a big job in itself. But you'll know where to start.

Here's a worksheet that might help you, complete with a sample case.

In order to We need: Where to look? When?
Discredit state environmental commissioner Evidence he lied, mishandled funds, failed to enforce regulations, or issued inaccurate reports
  • Newspapers
  • Disaffected former employees
By August


Gathering the information

With your investigation plan complete, you and your group are ready to start gathering information and evidence. It can seem like a lot of work, but remember: Somebody somewhere has probably already found out everything you need to know. You just need to locate the information.

If the information has not yet been made public in any of the usual sources, you may be able to assign someone to dig it up. College professors may assign the task to students; journalists may be interested; or large service agencies may be willing to look up the facts for you.

The following tips will help simplify your information gathering:

Find helpful friends.

You may find allies among public officials with an interest in the issue. Although it can be frustrating to work with a bureaucracy, individual public officials are often sincerely committed to solving the problems that face their communities, and can be an excellent resource for your organization. Many librarians and professors are also eager to help. Be polite and persistent and find the best people to work with.

Freedom of information laws, public records, etc.

Laws at the federal level, and in many states give you access to certain information. This information is yours by right, but you have to know specifically what you want and how to go about asking for it. If you need help, your local librarian, town or county clerk, or local legislator might be good places to start. A good place to look for information on the Freedom of Information Act is The National Security Archive: The Freedom of Information Act.

Published sources of information.

There is a wide variety of sources of published information. Depending on what your issue is, and who your opponents are, you can probably dig up useful material from the sources in the following list. You can search through many of these sources in a public library or a college campus, or in the comfort of your own home – you can find most of them on Internet websites.

Don't hesitate to ask for help from librarians or others on how to conduct these searches. If you don’t know how to do computer searches, what better time to learn than now?

Business and trade publications.

You and your group should subscribe to any business and trade publication that run a lot of stories about your interests. Browse through others at the library. Reading them will familiarize you with trends and issues, and will help you identify strategies to deal with the opponent.

Clipping files.

All newspapers keep back copies. Most are on microfilm, and can be found at your local library. (If it's a small-town newspaper, or if the information is very old, a reporter or other staffer friendly to your cause may be able to help you.) Major city newspapers are likely to have bound annual indexes by topic as well. And most newspapers now have web-based databases of their archives, so you can search for a particular topic by keyword from your library or home.

Reference works.

In the U.S., larger libraries may have comprehensive reference books about businesses, such as Funk & Scott's Index of Corporations and Industries, Standard & Poor's Register of Corporations; Directors and Executives; Directory of Corporate Affiliations; and The Thomas Register of American Manufacturers. These directories contain company information such as financial data, products and services, number of employees, and information on directors and executives of the company. Similar but smaller directories may exist with information specifically about businesses in your own state or province.  In addition the website of Rhodes-Blakeman Associates, a UK consulting firm, provides links to registration and financial information for businesses around the world.


Directories exist for almost everything. For example, "Who's Who" directories, social registers, and city directories can provide you with a wealth of information, from professional affiliations to people's home addresses.

Government files on businesses.

The Federal government collects data on many companies, but the easiest access to this information is often through state and local agencies. The first step in getting access to these records is finding the agency or official who has the relevant information. For example, The Reporter's Handbook, available in larger libraries, lists contacts for business and financial information. The State Capitol library, and the state website are also helpful places to start looking for the right document or official. Some helpful basic government files on businesses are:

  • Corporate registrations contain information about the place of business, date of incorporation, nature of the business, and names of directors and officers, as well as some financial information.
  • Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) records whether a company has borrowed against assets other than real estate. This is a great source for learning about creditor relationships.
  • Real Estate Records list ownership information, property tax records, and zoning and building information. These records are maintained at the city or county level. From these records, you can find out if your opponent is being undertaxed, or has committed zoning or licensing violations.
  • Voting records. Voter registration records may show a person's address, telephone number, employer, age, citizenship status, party enrollment, and elections in which the person voted. A local town census may also provide similar information.
  • Court records cover criminal and civil cases filed by or against individuals, groups, companies, or government organizations. You may be particularly interested in cases involving bankruptcies, complaints about a business by consumers, claims by one business against another, and government prosecutions of an individual or organization for illegal acts or practices. In addition to information about the specific case, you may glean other information. For example, does a certain person own land? What is it worth? Is it mortgaged, and to whom? Has the person been sued, sued someone else, been arrested, or been the target of legal judgments?
  • Government agencies with records on financial institutions. If your opponent is a bank or other type of financial institution, it should be easy to gather information. Various government bodies keep track of these institutions, monitoring their assets and keeping track of whom they lend money to. There are four agencies that may have information you can use:

Think like your opponents

Once you have gathered the information in your tactical investigation, you will be able to put yourself in your opponents' position – to think like them. What will they do in their present situation? And how might they react to different tactics you might try? At this point, you know enough about the histories, habits, and interests of your opponents to make a very educated guess; and this can help you immeasurably in planning and carrying out your advocacy work.

For example, in the book Organizing, Si Kahn writes, "For a few hours, the leaders of our organization become the board of Realtors of our city. Instead of talking about how to build people's power, we talk about how to destroy the community organizations that are opposing us and how to get our platform adopted by the city council. Working with this group, we go through the process of making strategy as best we can – for the other side... For some reason, it seems easiest to anticipate what the other side would do when we actually begin to think like them... By pretending to be them, we can to some extent start thinking the way they think, looking at it from their perspective, and therefore seeing as they see us. We begin to recognize from their perspective what their and our strengths and weaknesses are. (Kahn, 1982, pp. 170-171)."

As this example shows, thinking like your opponents means just that. It’s not enough to put yourself in your opponents’ place, to think “If I were in that situation, what would I do?” If you were in that situation, you’d do something different from what your opponents are doing: that’s why you’re in your own situation instead. To think like your opponents, you have to work to understand them more clearly, and to predict what they’d actually do, not what you’d do in their place.

Use the information

The final step in your investigation process is to put the information you have gathered to use, on behalf of your cause. You want to make sure that all of your hard work bears some fruit. But how?

Here are some possibilities:

  • You can now tailor your own advocacy actions so that they will be most effective. You know what your opponent's interests are, so you can address those interests if you want to. But you also know where their vulnerabilities are--so if you choose, you can hit them where it hurts.
  • You can publicize your opponent's vulnerabilities. Sometimes the simple threat of going to the media will be enough to make your opponents back down. If not, you can use the media to let your audience know that your opponents have acted at odds with their own public statements, or have not delivered on their promises, or have acted unethically in other ways. In the great majority of cases, the media will be very interested in factual information you dig up.
  • In some cases, your opponents may also have acted illegally. These instances are rare. But if they occur, and it is your group that has dug up the dirt, you have both the right and the responsibility to bring the facts before the proper authorities, and to seek legal redress.

How far should you go?

Ethical issues can arise when you are studying your opponents. For example, would you want to plant an informant in your opponent's camp? This strategy might yield valuable information you might not otherwise obtain. It might even provide the extra edge you need to defeat the opposition and win your advocacy campaign.

On the other hand...  For openers, in most circumstances, it’s unethical. In addition, what would be the consequences if you got caught? Besides being embarrassing, it might damage your credibility in the community, and thus ruin any chance of your issue being addressed. It could be grounds for a lawsuit, or it might draw attention away from your issue. Or your opponents might use the same tactics on you, perhaps planting a spy, or obtaining private records under false pretenses about you and your group.

So what are the boundaries of what is permissible, and how do you judge? There is no easy answer. You and your group will have to weigh those decisions when you plan your investigation.

There are really two kinds of opposition you’re likely to encounter, with variations. The first is raised by good people who simply disagree with you about what’s best for the community. They may be wrong, at least in your view, but they’re not self-serving or willing to ignore the needs of others. They simply think that what you’re advocating isn’t of benefit – or is actively harmful – to the community.

If these are the folks you’re dealing with, then you might want to apply the Golden Rule when choosing tactics: don’t use any tactics you would feel were unethical or outrageous if they were used against you. If you don’t want spies planted in your camp, don’t plant spies in anyone else’s. Do try to change their minds. They care about the same things you do; you ought to be allies. If you can convince them with logic and facts, particularly statistics, that your ideas are likely to accomplish the goals you both have, they’ll come over to your side.

The second kind of opposition is raised by people, organizations, corporations, or institutions (sometimes including government) that are indifferent to others’ needs, and concerned only with their own profit or power. They’re willing to foul drinking water, rig elections, and take emergency food shipments meant for the hungry in order to make a profit and hold on to power.  When you’re dealing with that kind of opponent, the rules have to change, because the stakes are higher. The community – or the country – may be in real danger, and you and your allies may be the only ones protecting it. If they’re willing to do anything to get their way, you may need to adopt at least some tactics that might otherwise be unethical in order to stave off disaster.  (To be fair, some moral philosophers might dispute this view.)

A third variant – one that has elements of both of these types of opposition – is that raised by true believers of one sort or another.  The true belief in question may be religious or ideological, or a combination of the two.  True believers are so convinced they’re right, and that their way is best for everyone, that they’re sometimes willing to do anything – in extreme cases, up to engaging in murder and terrorism – to gain power for their ideas.

In most cases, these folks aren’t violent, but they may be willing to use almost any other tactics to get what they want.  They’re usually not persuadable, because their beliefs are just that: beliefs.  Their minds can’t be changed by logic and facts, because their beliefs are based on blind faith – in a political or economic system, a particular religious view, or the rightness of a particular way of seeing the world.

In Summary

If you're running an advocacy campaign, and particularly if your opponent is a large organization or otherwise yields a lot of power, you need every edge you can get. By doing just a little bit of digging, you can uncover information about your opponent that will help you meet their strengths, exploit their vulnerabilities, fully understand their position, and possibly even negotiate with them. The end result for you is a stronger, more focused advocacy campaign.

Eric Wadud
Prue Breitrose

Online Resources

Identifying Allies and Opponents. This advocacy planning model provides information on how to establish a group or individual as an ally, opponent, or neutral/unknown group.

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J.(1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Biklen, D.(1983). Community organizing: Theory and practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S. (1996). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. St. Paul, MN: Seven Locks Press.

Homan, M., (1994). Promoting community change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Kahn, S. (1982). Organizing. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

King, D. (1992). Get the facts on anyone. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.

Robinson, J. & Green, P. (2010). Introduction to community development: Theory, practice, and service-learning. SAGE Publications, Inc. This book provides both theoretical and practical approaches to community development, as well as case studies and supportive materials to develop community development skills.

Weinberg, S. (1996). The reporter's handbook: An investigator's guide to documents and techniques. New York, NY: St. Martin's.