Keeping politically minded clients in media's spotlight

Now that Election Day has passed, many cause-related PR programs will seek to maintain momentum and capitalize on opportunities to get the word out.

Now that Election Day has passed, many cause-related PR programs will seek to maintain momentum and capitalize on opportunities to get the word out.

If you live in a swing state, it is no small relief that the end of the election season means the end of "527" ads, which have so dominated the airwaves they have helped set new records in campaign spending.

But while Swift Boat Captains, Regular Guys for Bush, and other political activist groups that have taken their message to the people can now call it quits for four more years, many PR agencies are ramping up a new phase of programs aimed at keeping their politically minded clients front and center.

For others, now is a time to launch more general campaigns that had been pushed to the back burner while politics dominated the public discourse. "To some degree, our life will be easier after the election is over because the presidential race has so totally sucked the air out of every news cycle for the last couple months," says Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), whose organization has focused on the medical marijuana issue in both state and federal elections.

"Getting someone to notice anything else has been a struggle. I think everybody is going to take a collective deep breath after the election and be grateful that it is over with."

While the end of the election season has certainly freed up time for both the media and the general populace to focus on other issues, many PR experts say the next couple months before the start of the new presidential term represents a critical, high-activity period for both behind-the-scenes and public efforts on issues that have loomed large in the campaign.

"We don't expect everything to be over on November 2nd," says Mike Paul of New York-based MGP & Associates PR, who has been working to raise the profile of Bishop Harry Jackson, a conservative African American pastor, by positioning him as the "anti-Jesse Jackson" political commentator for issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.

"The first couple weeks after the election is still going to be analysis of the election, so I think the PR landscape is still going to be inundated with election speak," adds Steven Morse, a publicist at Austin, TX-based Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists, who is also pitching some of his firm's authors as political commentators.

Cathy Renna, a VP with progressive social PR firm Fenton Communications, which has handled high-profile election efforts for groups such as MoveOn.org, says her firm has been working on strategies "to make sure no matter who wins the election, we work with [clients] to strategically find a way to keep their issues in the media for the period of time between the election and the inauguration.

It's a time where [the President-elect] is already planning who are going to be [his] advisors," making it critical that activists do not back off their agendas, but instead work to position themselves as thought leaders for their issues, she says.

Meet the legislators
It's not just the Oval Office that is the focus of post-election PR efforts. Activists are also reaching out to new legislators to introduce themselves and their issues, and meeting with veterans to remind them of campaign promises and positions.

The election was "a catalyst to get things out," says Paul, adding that for his efforts, "the hook for post-election media and publicity is now that whoever has won, the Christian community, the Black community - we are going to hold the next president accountable."

Paul says to reach that goal, his client will "have meetings with everyone from Capitol Hill to what they call para-church organizations who have memberships in the millions." Paul isn't the only one setting up meetings. Legislators will have full calendars in the coming weeks as activists with varied agendas descend on the nation's capital, hoping to nurture old and new alliances.

For example, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) will launch a program called "From Our House to the State House" that will "have moms and dads, grandmas and friends, coming to Washington, DC, from all over the country" to meet with their representatives to talk about social equality for gays and lesbians through discussion on topics such as safety in schools and hate crime laws, notes Alice Leeds, PFLAG's director of communications.

"We will set up visits for them with their lawmakers, and they will go to Capitol Hill and meet with their legislators. We are encouraging them to bring little Kodak photos of their loved ones to really again put the human face on what could be looked at [as a] dry issue," she adds.

On the media relations front, PR experts say it's no big leap to figure out that the news hole will become glaringly large as reporters seek new topics. But it remains hard to predict what types of stories they will be after.

Traditionally, the holiday season heralds a willingness to run fluffier human interest news. However, the war in Iraq, continuing fears of terrorism, and economic concerns may temper the holiday spirit and make it tougher for consumer campaigns to find willing outlets.

"I think our general mood is hopeful," says Renna of her prediction for the coming months. "There will be some room for some different kind of stories. But we are in a climate where things can suddenly happen that we have no control over that take over the news cycle."

Nonetheless, Fenton will venture out of its political expertise in the coming weeks to help playwright Eve Ensler launch a campaign with New York-based retail store ABC Carpet & Home based around her new work, The Good Body. Hopes are high that consumers will be looking for such diversions in the next few months.

Maintaining momentum
For groups with social issues, the challenge will be to find new and creative ways to fit into whatever topics the media decides to cover, including "places you wouldn't ordinarily expect to see them," notes PFLAG's Leeds. "We're going to continue to identify even the most subtly presented opportunities," adds Leeds.

"If we hear that a reporter is going to be doing a story about a parent's concern for their kids when they first enter public school, we would try to integrate a same-sex headed household into that. Up until recently, we have been preaching to the choir. It will be important after the election for us to bring our message to those who normally don't hear it except for the most sensational sound bites."

Across the board, PR professionals who worked on election issues say one of their top priorities is to keep the momentum created by the presidential race alive and well. This year saw a tremendous swell of interest and activism on a variety of issues, and many organizations say it is vital to their cause to keep that energy alive. Indeed, many are hopeful it can be done.

"I think it's something we can sustain," says Renna. "It was unprecedented that someone like Bruce Springsteen stepped up," she says, referring to the singer's support of John Kerry. "We very much hope when individuals like that can see the impact they have, they are not going to go back to their day-to-day lives."

Regardless of where the next few months lead the PR industry - and how the campaigns' issues continue to play out - things will certainly be calmer. It will most likely be a period of "comparative normalcy," predicts MPP's Mirken, and that "will create opportunities for all of us."

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