PROFILE: McCarthy is Native Americans' PR rainmaker

Since Jim McCarthy offered to help raise the reputation of the Winnebago tribe, he has become an expert on Indian affairs, building his agency on a roster of Native American accounts.

Since Jim McCarthy offered to help raise the reputation of the Winnebago tribe, he has become an expert on Indian affairs, building his agency on a roster of Native American accounts.

Ten years ago, John Blackhawk, chairman of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, met with Washington Post syndicated columnist Colman McCarthy. Blackhawk expressed his anguish about how Indians were getting beaten up in the press with negative stories about alcoholism, crime, and casinos. The columnist mentioned that he happened to have a son in the PR business. Jim McCarthy, then at Washington, DC agency Nichols-Dezenhall, offered to work for free on the Winnebagos' press problems for one month. If they were happy with the results, the tribe would become a regular client. So McCarthy went to Nebraska and did what he calls "the PR basics." He media-trained tribe leaders, and joined them in meetings with journalists to forge relationships and dispel myths about Native Americans. The Winnebagos began to get fairer treatment in the press, which continues to this day (they're still a client). "We didn't know a lot about public relations, so it was a little bit of an education for us," Blackhawk recalls. "On the other hand, he didn't know a lot about tribal government. As it turned out, we learned more about public relations and, of course, he became what he is now: an expert on Indian affairs." Indeed McCarthy runs what appears to be the only PR agency - McCarthy Communications in Washington, DC, which includes two other PR people as well - to specialize in Indian public-affairs work such as religious freedom, education, criminal justice, and the tribes' image in general. Although the 35-year-old McCarthy is hardly a bleeding-heart lefty - he describes his politics as "pure libertarian" - he has developed a passion for Indians' issues. Still, he approaches the work as he would any other PR pursuit, he says. These are accounts - and clients - he enjoys. Such work is half of McCarthy's business. The other half is doing crisis communications for companies, the majority of which he declines to divulge. One on the record, however, is the Augusta National Golf Club, which is under attack because it doesn't admit women as members. USA Today noted that McCarthy "brought the club out of its bunker of silence." It's no wonder that McCarthy went into PR. Like his father, who has since left journalism to become a peace activist, his mother has a journalism background. In addition, one of his grandfathers was a New York PR man in the 1950s and 1960s. McCarthy replicated the Winnebago experience of rolling out PR plans for over two dozen tribes, and has handled high-profile matters for them and for all the major Indian interest groups, such as the National Congress of American Indians and the National Association of Indian Legal Affairs. An early campaign, and the one he says he's most proud of, was helping to get the Religious Freedom Act of 1994 passed, which legalized the use of peyote (a controversial hallucinogenic plant) as part of Indian religion. "To the tribes, it was their most important issue," he recalls. "We got stories in the national press on what peyote use was, and on the Native American Church." Other matters included the Makah Indian Nation's high-profile fight in 1998 to conduct the first whale hunt in US waters in over 75 years. McCarthy says the project involved both religious freedom (the whale is a central figure in Indian religion) and crisis communications because of opposition from animal-rights and environmental groups. Perhaps the most important case he's worked on is the Indians' lawsuit to recoup money from the federal government for use of their land for oil, timber, and other natural resources. It is the largest lawsuit ever brought against the federal government, with 500,000 plaintiffs and damages expected to be over $10 billion. In 1999, a court ruled that the government breached its fiduciary duty to the Indians in overseeing their trust fund. The penalty phase has been dragging on ever since. McCarthy kept the complex saga going in the press by breaking it down into its components: human-interest stories of wronged individual Indians, and harder pieces about the Bureau of Indian Affairs' mismanagement and misdeeds over the years. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, a Washington correspondent for National Public Radio, says she dealt with McCarthy on at least a dozen stories, and calls him "by far the best PR person I'd ever worked with. I'd be on deadline, and something would break with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I'd call Jim, and within about a half-hour, 10 Indian chiefs would call me back and give me quotes. It was spectacular." She says two things make McCarthy stand out. "He's incredibly helpful at giving you all the resources you need, and then stepping back and letting you do your job." And, she says, "he has a good sense for what a story is. He has an instinctive sense of what has a great narrative. That's why he got stuff in the papers [in the trust-fund case] the way he did." One pro bono matter McCarthy is particularly proud of was the Venetie Tribe's struggle to regain its sovereign status in Alaska (though it ultimately lost in court). He convinced a New York Times reporter to visit the tribe; a photo with the article showed a Venetie woman skinning a moose. "If you can get a [New York Times] reporter to travel to the Arctic Circle and get your client on the front page, that's pretty good," says McCarthy. "If there's something harder to flack than that, I don't know what it is." ----- Jim McCarthy 1996 McCarthy Communications becomes independent again 1995 McCarthy Communications is folded into Shandwick's Washington, DC office 1994 Opens McCarthy Communications, Washington, DC 1993-1994 Counselor, Nichols-Dezenhall, Washington, DC 1992-1993 Junior account executive, Ruder Finn, Washington, DC

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