PROFILE: Pariser turns to ads for MoveOn.org's progressive PR

MoveOn.org's Eli Pariser has raised the profile of a host of major issues by calling attention to the substance, and getting the press to rethink how it covers politics and foreign policy.

MoveOn.org's Eli Pariser has raised the profile of a host of major issues by calling attention to the substance, and getting the press to rethink how it covers politics and foreign policy.

For some liberal organizations, being called a name in the New York Post, the archconservative tabloid, would be a sign that it had made the big time. Not so for MoveOn.org, which suffered such a sling earlier this month when it questioned the paper's taste in syndicated columnists. After all, when you've brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets for antiwar protests and raised substantial chunks of cash for a wide range of progressive causes, being called "cyberbullies" is sticks-and-stones stuff - especially, when you consider the very real power the web-based organization wields. Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org's 22-year-old campaigns director, certainly hasn't lost any sleep over the slight. Asked about it recently in a midtown Manhattan lunch spot, not far from the small apartment he also calls his office, he barely registered a shrug. And for good reason. The Post aside, journalists for the most part quaver at the organization's ability to round up legions of people ready to display their dissatisfaction with the current regime's foreign policy or the California recall election. Countless breathless articles describe MoveOn's electronic organizational tactics - flash campaigns and virtual marches - that bring democracy to the streets, virtual and concrete, in the time it takes to push the "send" button. For MoveOn.org, however, communicating isn't all modish ways of reaching to the hyper-connected. Some of its most important work in gaining coverage for issues, which Pariser says is central to its mission, comes from a very traditional form of communication - print and TV advertising. Creative ads, like the one depicting Rupert Murdoch as the face of big media or a reincarnation of the Vietnam-era "Daisy" ad, have become a crucial part of MoveOn's arsenal, but not solely because of the sheer numbers of people they reach. Instead, the advertising, which, for all its originality, is created on a shoestring budget, and is designed to get the attention of reporters. "Our strategy has always been to take issues that should be covered more and try to raise their profile and generate enough of a story that they're interesting to report on," says Pariser. Asked whether there's an irony in the fact that the ads, rather than the issues they call attention to, are often the focus of the coverage, Pariser is pragmatic. "I think it's a broader issue than just with advertising," he says. "In general, people love to focus on the tactics more than the content in politics. If it's advertising, they'll deconstruct the advertising. If it's a political campaign, they'll say Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting PR from so-and-so rather than talking about the substance." Despite the passion with which Pariser discusses the subjects he cares most about, he is always measured. Perhaps his composure stems from the fact that politics is not a newfound passion, as it is for many activists his age. "I was always interested in making the world a better place, but I switched around a lot on what avenue to choose," he says. After graduating from Simon's Rock College at the age of 19, he directed IT for a nonprofit and was co-director of an online documentary project exploring the political beliefs of Americans. After September 11, 2001, he started 9-11peace.org, a campaign dedicated to a nonviolent response in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Pariser and the website would eventually be brought into MoveOn.org, which was begun in 1998, in response to the impeachment of President Clinton. Fundamental to MoveOn's communication strategy is a disdain for how the media covers domestic politics and foreign policy. Pariser follows many other media critics in harshly judging the ease with which American journalists get wrapped up in the form, at the expense of digging into the content. And putting out the sharp ads that journalists want to talk about has become MoveOn's way of exploiting this media weakness. If this sounds like a well-honed strategy that's been around since the beginning of the five-year-old organization, it's not. In fact, as Pariser tells it, MoveOn happened into advertising almost by accident. Late last year, as war in Iraq began to look imminent, MoveOn decided to buy ad space in The New York Times, asking the Bush administration to step down the war rhetoric and allow the weapons inspectors to continue their work. They had about half the money that was needed to purchase the ad space, so MoveOn's leadership put out the word to its over 1 million-person membership list, and received a prompt answer. "I checked the database the next day," says Pariser, "and there was $300,000 that people contributed. We needed $35,000. We said, 'Wow, people are really interested in this way of communicating.'" Despite the sum, MoveOn's average contribution is $35. "What these communications are relying on is the law of large numbers: A little bit of a lot is a lot," says George Burger, a GM at Edelman and a head of the agency's issues-advocacy division. "They are riding the crest of the future of fundraising." The surplus for the antiwar ad would lead to television advertising - in particular, the "Daisy" ad, whose stark, apocalyptic feel made headlines across the country. Daisy was followed by the Murdoch newspaper advertisement and, with it, came a crush of media attention on an issue reporters had to that point by and large ignored: the FCC's vote to relax media ownership regulations. Discussing the effect of this campaign, which contributed to the issue getting bogged down legally and politically, is one of the rare times that the modest Pariser claims any direct credit for his organization. "You never know how much effect you have," he says. "But before that ad there was so little coverage of that whole issue. From then on, there was a whole lot more to that story." ------ Eli Pariser 2002-present Campaigns director, MoveOn.org 2001-2002 Web and IT director, More than Money, a nonprofit that helps the wealthy use money for public good 2000-2001 Co-director American Story Project, an online documentary project 2000 Graduated from Simon's Rock College, Great Barrington, MA, with a degree in political science

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