The power of PR: do ask, do tell

All eyes are on Washington, DC this week as the "lame duck" session of the current Congress turns out to be much more interesting than usual.

All eyes are on Washington, DC this week as the “lame duck” session of the current Congress turns out to be much more interesting than usual. One of the more dramatic showdowns –17 years in the making – is whether or not we will finally repeal “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

My firm has two clients in the thick of the battle these final weeks. As a public interest firm we also see this as a time when PR can be used as a critical tool to educate, advocate, and make a difference in the political process.

Yesterday morning's hearing, where the Joint Chiefs and Pentagon Working Group were grilled by Senator John McCain and others defiantly standing in the way of repeal, was a shocking display of politicking at its worst. Our two clients, the Palm Center (a research and policy shop that focuses specifically on DADT) and Outserve (a very new organization, made up of an underground network of active duty gay, lesbian and bisexual troops) were in the room for the hearing as my team prepared for reaction and media outreach in this final critical push for repeal.

Side by side, the first paid lobbyist on this issue and deputy director of a prestigious think tank sat inches away from an active duty officer who is very new to the world of politics. They had two very different stories, but both were passionate about making sure their stories are told.

Our challenge is always breaking through the clutter of the increasingly oversimplified and sensational 24/7 news cycle to get the media – and the public – to focus on the real issues and the real lives affected by this policy.

Our strategies and tactics have been simple, straightforward, and effective. Anyone who does this work knows you need to reach people minds and hearts, and these two clients, in combination, allow us to do both.

First, we use data and research to garner visibility for the Palm Center as well as inform the coverage and educate journalists.  Constantly vigilant, the Palm Center has countered misinformation and myth perpetrated by anti-gay groups and elected officials, as well as providing context and analysis as the debate has changed with our culture in the past 17 years. The majority of Americans now support repeal, as do those serving, but you would never know if from the vociferous objections of Sen. John McCain and others. 

Second, using the personal stories of gay, lesbian and bisexual troops has been extremely effective. The debate has never been “should” gay people serve, but “could they serve openly?” Many active duty troops continue to serve in silence, patiently, and painfully waiting for the day they can serve with honesty and integrity.

Their stories – an African American lesbian soldier in Bagdad, a triple Bronze Star recipient forced out after a witch-hunt, an Air Force officer who has seen his straight colleagues risk their careers in supporting him. The stories have touched the hearts of Americans and put a real face on the issue.

As we slowly see attitudes change, we will eventually see policy changes that finally offer full equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. One of the main reasons we have seen such cultural change is the power media visibility and the potential story-telling has in opening the hearts and minds of the public. All of us who play a role in making the community visible must take that responsibility seriously and understand that our role in the process is a vital one.

Cathy Renna is managing partner of Renna Communications

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