The Rev. Jesse Jackson has long been a formidable publicity machine.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has long been a formidable publicity machine.
His uncanny sense of timing and talent for self-promotion are the stuff of legend. He has been praised as a self-made man and vilified as a self-serving charlatan. Cynical politician or tireless champion of equality and social justice, he is the most visible heir to the African-American leaders of the civil rights era. A larger-than-life figure, he counsels presidents, negotiates freedom for hostages, chastens powerful corporations for discrimination and rallies public attention against injustice. He is the ringleader of his very own media circus.
But behind him is the Rainbow/Push Coalition, a grass-roots organization formed by the 1989 merger of two groups he founded, the Washington-based Rainbow Coalition and the Chicago-based Operation Push.
It is an activist community whose every move is inextricably linked to Jackson. Rainbow/Push functions largely as a pressure group, working on issues such as poverty, discrimination and voter apathy.
'Jesse Jackson is one of the great PR people in history, no doubt about it,' says Dan Klores of Dan Klores Communications. 'He's just extremely charismatic and an excellent communicator, combined with a political climate that has a great void in minority leadership.'
Keiana Payton is the national press secretary for Rainbow/Push and works closely with Jackson. She joined Rainbow/Push in the middle of the election crisis. Previously she had spent five years in the media relations department of Metra, a Chicago commuter rail line, and dealt with a range of crises involving accidents.
'I came in with the mindset that whatever I was willing to put into it would be what I could take out,' she says. 'Working with the reverend was a phenomenal opportunity - a blessing, I like to call it.'
It wasn't long after Payton joined Rainbow/Push that the organization had to cope with a train wreck of its own. Last month, when The National Enquirer broke the news that Jackson had fathered a child in an extramarital affair with a former Rainbow/Push Washington bureau director, Jackson brought on a pinch-hitter to handle the crisis. Through a mutual friend, Jackson heard of PR veteran John Scanlon, a founding partner of WestHill Media Strategies in New York.
'They really didn't have the internal mechanism to handle this,' Scanlon said. 'They have internal PR, but the young woman (Payton) who handles it had just come in,' he said. Another partner at WestHill, Lou Colasuonno, has also met the press on Jackson's behalf.
The way Scanlon tells it, the job was easy. 'We were only representing his position,' he says. 'He didn't have to be convinced. It was all about assuming responsibility, transparency, getting out in front of the story. We were out in front the first day.' Jackson's representatives issued a press release ahead of The National Enquirer's publication date to explain his position.
By the end of the week, the story seemed to have run its course. Jackson's candor about the affair, along with the news that he was helping to support the child and had long ago told his wife of the affair, brought him praise from seemingly unlikely quarters. 'Let's cut the snickering,' wrote conservative columnist William Safire, 'Jackson and his biographer-staffer faced the consequences of their moral lapse with courage.'
'We all stumble,' says Mike Paul, principal of MGP & Associates PR, which works for Rainbow/Push. 'How we deal with these situations after the fact is just as important as how they occur in the first place.'
Rainbow/Push hires numerous external PR agencies, but on a piecemeal, project-by-project basis or in response to a crisis. True to its message of empowering minority businesses through patronage, when Rainbow/Push hires PR counsel, it tends to eschew large agencies for small, black-owned boutiques.
Payton is out in front on media relations for the group. Her first priority as press secretary is increasing public understanding of what Rainbow/Push is and does. 'We serve somewhat as an encyclopedia for the black community,' she says, 'to break down some of the complex terms of our political world and social agenda into everyday terms, so that people fully understand how violations or how policies and procedures will affect them.'
One of those projects is the Rainbow/Push Coalition's annual Wall Street Project conference, an effort aimed at bringing diversity to the nation's financial center. Jackson addressed some of the nation's most powerful businessmen in January. He railed against the vertical divide of extreme wealth and said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech is too often misused.
Its real meaning, he said, is about access to economic security and equal protection under the law.
Mike Paul was hired this year to represent the Wall Street Project. His small practice is centered on the sports world, and he had served on a task force for Rainbow/Push's sports project, which is also run out of New York. Similarly, the group's Silicon Valley Project called on PR et Cetera, a small firm based in Milpitas, CA, and focused on African-American nonprofits, to facilitate media relations for its annual conference last year.
Another area of concern for Rainbow is making sure black Americans are adequately represented in the democracy. That issue came under question during the badly organized Florida voting process.
On election eve, the phones lit up at Rainbow/Push's national headquarters in Chicago, with callers complaining of election fraud. Many African Americans in Florida and elsewhere said confusing ballots and aging voting machines had caused them to miscast their votes.
Others reported police harassment at polling stations or said their names had been wrongfully dropped from voter rolls. With the election in the balance, Jackson, who made two unsuccessful bids for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, shot down to Florida, the epicenter of the crisis.
He called for a revote in several largely black counties. Payton traveled with him. Jackson also hired Ken Sunshine of Sunshine Consultants to help set up press conferences in Florida.
Since a Supreme Court vote halted recounts and sealed the election for the Republicans, Jackson has taken a more conciliatory tone toward George W. Bush's administration. 'I've helped Jackson work on our agenda,' says Payton, 'and helped him work on how we can position ourselves so that we can have an open dialogue with Bush and his administration, even though we were not pleased with the way the election was handled.'
It might seem a surprisingly threadbare PR effort for so visible and influential an organization, but Rainbow/Push and Jackson have no trouble getting the word out.
'You can tell this is not an organization that spends a lot of resources on staff,' Scanlon says. 'It's very inspiring.'
National Press Secretary: Keiana Payton
Deputy Press Secretary: Lori Morgan
- PR et Cetera: (the Silicon Valley Project);
- MGP & Associates PR: (the Wall Street Project);
- WestHill Media Strategies: (Jackson sex scandal);
- Sunshine Consultants: (FL election press conference)
PR Budget: not given.