ANALYSIS: Client Profile - The NAACP fights the same media it courts. The NAACP desperately needs the media in order to get its message out; it also wants that same media to change their tune. Jessica Sung reports

A South African photojournalist once remarked that a political struggle without documentation could not be considered a struggle. These are words that the NAACP, the oldest and largest civil rights advocacy group in the country, knows all too well.

A South African photojournalist once remarked that a political struggle without documentation could not be considered a struggle. These are words that the NAACP, the oldest and largest civil rights advocacy group in the country, knows all too well.

A South African photojournalist once remarked that a political struggle without documentation could not be considered a struggle. These are words that the NAACP, the oldest and largest civil rights advocacy group in the country, knows all too well.

Throughout its history, the Baltimore-based, 91-year-old organization has had to struggle as much for mainstream media coverage as it has for equal rights for African-Americans. Even though the NAACP was instrumental in overturning segregation in the 1960s and its pedigree includes such civil rights luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, the media doesn't exactly let it rest on its laurels.

'The media is populated by cynics,' says Julian Bond, who is chairman of the NAACP and a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC and the University of Virginia. 'Professional cynics are always in search of something new, and we're old. When we come along, they say, 'Gee, we did the same story last year.''

With civil rights legislation mandated long ago and race relations arguably better now than in the 1960s, the NAACP is using PR to reverse widespread perceptions that it is 'venerable,' 'geriatric' - in other words, past its prime.

To that end, the NAACP in recent years has updated its civil rights agenda to attract new members. A third of the group's revenue comes from membership dues and it has a dollars 2 million surplus, most of which comes from corporate donors. However, the NAACP does not use advertising. So, the group is targeting African-American youth in order to boost its current 600,000 membership base. For example, with media relations help from Washington, DC-based Walls Communications, the organization currently is aiming to mobilize 4 million African-Americans in a voter registration campaign.

The NAACP has also partnered with radio and TV programs, including The Tom Joyner Morning Show and BET Tonight Hosted by Tavis Smiley, in order to promote the voter registration campaign.



Targeting TV

Another civil rights issue that the NAACP hopes will resonate with a younger generation is the diversification of the TV industry. Last year, the NAACP partnered with Hispanic and Asian organizations and got ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox to pledge in writing that they would hire more minority actors and TV executives. Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP's executive director, also purchased 100 shares of Walt Disney, General Electric, CBS and News Corp., the networks' parent companies, so that he could attend shareholder meetings and scrutinize documents showing corporate spending and hiring.

The attack on the TV networks demonstrates how shrewd the NAACP under Mfume has become in its use of the media. Mfume, a former Maryland congressman, told USA Today the reason he targeted TV was because 'TV is such an enormous dictator of images, ideas and stereotypes.'

The NAACP is both strategic and opportunistic in deciding which anti-discrimination issues to publicize. The group might have delegates at its annual convention vote for an issue to become an NAACP mandate, which was the case when the organization lobbied for removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol. At other times, the board of directors will decide which issues the group will pursue. And finally, when a racial discrimination case attracts Mfume, he will publicize it with a press release, a press conference or both.

After the 1998 murder of James Byrd, an African-American who was tied to a truck and dragged to his death by three white men in Texas, the NAACP used the publicity surrounding the crime to push for stronger hate crime laws.

'It's tremendously important to reach the media, because part of our mandate is to say to people that although great racial progress is made, there's still a great deal to be done,' says Bond. 'If we can say this happened here, it helps to carry out our mission and lets people know that NAACP is on the job.'



Image and influence

The NAACP says it also tries to get the same level of media coverage for less controversial issues, including healthcare, family planning, anti-drug and AIDS awareness campaigns. NAACP spokesman John White, who previously worked at Fleishman Hillard, has been trying to get publicity for the organization's fund-raising efforts to rebuild Princeville, NC, the oldest black town in the South, which was recently damaged by floods.

One of the NAACP's greatest PR challenges occurred in the mid-1990s when former executive director Benjamin Chavis was caught using NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment and discrimination suit filed against him.

A year later, two other executives were dismissed for appropriating funds for personal use. The organization regained its image only after Mfume and Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, took over the leadership, cut staff to reduce costs and attracted donors.

After Bond, a civil rights legend and former Georgia legislator, became chairman in 1998, media coverage of the NAACP shimmered with promises of a revitalized organization.

Walls Communications CEO Lon Walls says Bond and Mfume have done much to shore up the NAACP's organization and image. 'Mfume is one of the best speakers I've ever heard. Julian Bond is not as visible, but he represents a bridge to the old civil rights community. Both of them are extremely media-savvy.'

Nonetheless, White has made proactive and quick media relations a priority.

For example, when a Texas NAACP leader made an anti-Semitic remark after Vice President Al Gore announced his selection of Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, White made sure that a press release about the leader's suspension was drafted and sent before reporters called the headquarters for comment.

And it's a testament to the organization's influence and stature that Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Texas Gov. George W. Bush stopped by this year's NAACP convention to appeal to black voters.

However, Ron Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland in College Park and a former deputy campaign manager for Rev. Jesse Jackson says: 'As long as it does things that are important to the African-American community, they don't necessarily need the media. The NAACP is going to exist regardless of the media.'

But with this media support, it's 600,000-and-growing membership, a six-member lobbying staff and 2,200 chapters across the nation, what the NAACP does have is a bona fide constituency that it can effectively mobilize.

And that's one less struggle the NAACP needs documented.



NAACP

Director of communications: John White

Media specialists: Sheila Douglas, Jean Ross

PR agency: Walls Communications.





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