Property laws maintain coverage

Though the laws surrounding land use are often complex, all types of reporters have been following how such issues affect towns, residents, and readers.

Though the laws surrounding land use are often complex, all types of reporters have been following how such issues affect towns, residents, and readers.

For the past several years, Washington DC-based firm Marmillion & Co. has worked with the state of Louisiana on a campaign to save the state's wetlands.

The PR team argued that the loss of this land, at a rate of 25 to 35 miles a year, was not only an ecological disaster in the making, but also made the area more vulnerable to other acts of nature. When Hurricane Katrina proved many of the campaign's messages prophetic, the agency was inundated with media calls, many from reporters who had written about the original issue.

"We're dealing with a lot of different types of reporters because we developed the PR campaign to have several different messages," explains agency head Val Marmillion, who is also spokesperson for the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. "We have Washington, Wall Street, environmental, and even education beat writers, and the aspect of the story we're promoting now [is] to honor this great sacrifice of the residents by making sure we have a legacy."

Viable media issue

Not every story dealing with land use and preservation takes such a dramatic twist. But land use and the complex laws that govern who can do what to property are proving to be hot-button issues in the media these days.

In June, the Supreme Court's ruling in Kelo vs. New London that a city can force property owners to sell to other private developers triggered a flurry of coverage of private property rights and eminent domain. (Susette Kelo was one of seven Fort Trumbull, CT, property owners who went before the court to argue that the city had no right to take their properties for economic development.)

John Kramer, VP of communications for the Institute for Justice, which litigated the Kelo case before the Supreme Court, notes that land use is not just a one-off news topic. "We've been working on this issue since the 1990s, targeting real-estate reporters, legal reporters, editorial reporters," he says. "And the key for us has been to frame issues for reporters so that it's not just about dry legal theory, [but] about real-life people and the homes and churches with history that are under assault."

Few media outlets have experts on land use on staff, but Kramer says there are enough cases of what he terms "eminent domain abuse" around the country that most reporters can find a case close enough to them so they can localize the issue.

"We recognize going in that yesterday this same reporter may have been covering food or the tire industry, so we make sure releases and reports are in plain English, and we summarize the hot-button issues," he says.

James McIntyre, account supervisor with Portland, OR-based PR/marketing firm Lane, agrees that land use generates media interest. But, he adds, "Many reporters are challenged to develop the story beyond the 'he said, she said' political food fight. In search of balance, reporters home in on the two sides of the issue from a political standpoint - the opinions of any neutral observer or apolitical third party, while treated as valuable background, don't usually become part of the story."

In Oregon, the land use issue hinged on Measure 37, a statewide ballot initiative that said property owners are entitled to compensation if a land use law passed after they bought land impacted its fair market value.

Though the measure passed last year, "it remains a hot media topic as government wraps its arms around what the real impact will be," McIntyre says. "But most media here are conscious that their audience falls sharply to one side or the other, and so they try not to be seen as too far over one way or the other." Helping press understand

Michael Shepherd, president of The Shepherd Group, says that if there is a challenge with these issues, it's keeping the public and the press engaged over the long term. Shepherd has worked in Alaska on the debate over energy exploration and currently represents the Salton Sea Authority, which is trying to gain support for a $1 billion project to rebalance the ecosystem in the Southern California area.

"Most people know the Salton Sea is in trouble, but when you get involved in multiple jurisdictions and regulatory issues, you get a lot of complexity," he explains. "And so our challenge is to bring it down to a point where it's more easily understandable."

Shepherd stresses the need for early media outreach so that reporters are well-versed on the issues when there is hard news.

"White papers are crucial because they have the ability to distill the key issues to the point where people can digest and understand it," he says. "We also make sure we arm our experts with multiple talking points that can be tailored to whatever readership you're dealing with."

Pitching... land use issues

  • Land use stories that balance environmental, political, and economic concerns are usually complex, so make sure you have talking points and other contents that can explain your client's side in ways the average person can grasp

  • Avoid "he said, she said" stories if possible. Instead, try to position your client as a neutral expert on land use and environmental issues

  • Land use stories often provide great opportunities for visuals of homes or nature, so leverage that to generate interest among local TV producers.
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