Within the Beltway of Washington, DC, politics are cheap. The proliferation of special interest groups inhabiting every nook and cranny of every issue ensures that media outlets can quickly obtain "rent-a-quotes." Politicians can readily whip up the appearance of public support. And the big picture of American society is often lost in the minutiae of default partisan stances, owing more to calculations of power than to deep philosophical underpinnings.
In such an environment, a group such as the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) stands out. Partisan? Sure. But it has deliberately eschewed the narrow-minded focus of many special interest groups in favor of building broad-based coalitions of unlikely allies in an evolving quest to spark a resurgence of the progressive values of an activist government that favors the poor and the middle class over the wealthy and powerful.
CAF was founded almost 10 years ago by a group of liberal activists who were alarmed at the increasing dominance of conservative values even then, during the Clinton administration.
"The right wing had taken the tools pioneered by liberal advocates and progressives and think tanks, and started using them very effectively," says Roger Hickey, CAF's co-director. "We're about uniting Americans - kind of the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution - around an economic agenda."
He defines that agenda as "an economy that works for working people," which is not only an idea simple enough for even non-economists to understand, but also an example of the catchy sound bites that CAF has perfected over the past decade.
Working from that general platform, the group identifies specific issues to take on and builds large-scale campaigns around them. They involve building coalitions of disparate groups both inside and outside the Beltway, producing reports and other materials to back up their positions, and - perhaps most important - gaining significant amounts of free media coverage without breaking the bank.
The $6 million annual budget of CAF supports a staff of 35 people, including the separate, nonprofit research arm of the group, the Institute for America's Future. Toby Chaudhuri, CAF's communications director, says that only 15% to 20% of the group's budget is dedicated to communications. But the seven-member communications team has become adept at positioning the group as a key player in Washington's hot-button issues.
Breaking through the clutter
CAF "works on inspiring issues that by their very nature garner attention and have a strong record of results," Chaudhuri says via e-mail. "We break through the clutter in political reporting because we know the media should be used in concert with other efforts to reach clearly defined short- and long-term goals. The press is like a grand piano waiting for a player. Strike the chords through a news story, a guest column, or an editorial, and thousands will hear."
Chaudhuri, who worked in communications roles for Common Cause, the Children's Defense Fund, and former Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign before assuming his current position, says that CAF is able to compete on the national stage against better-funded groups by using smarter, cheaper strategies.
One is CAF's extensive website, www.ourfuture.org, which includes an online pressroom, details of all of the group's ongoing campaigns, and networking tools to spread information and raise funds. "The internet has revolutionized politics in America," he says, "and with online tactics, we can finally move our message and win on a shoe-string budget up against multimillion-dollar corporate machines."
Another cost-efficient strategy has been to make a relatively small ad buy targeting high-profile politicians and to multiply its effect by turning the ad campaign itself into a news story. The CAF did this to great effect last May, when it produced and ran ads in Rep. Tom DeLay's (R-TX) home district accusing him of corruption. The group launched another round of similar ads and billboards this month targeting DeLay and Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), both of whom were caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal.
For the political media, these moves become part of the larger unfolding drama of national figures swept up in controversy and, thus, get covered as such. The small amount of money spent on the ads, as part of CAF's "Accountable Congress" initiative, has turned into a publicity coup.
"Rarely do we have a huge budget for advertising. Often we work with our friends at MoveOn.org, and they have pioneered grassroots funding of advertising," says Hickey. "But this time around, we're doing fairly small buys. A big part of the advertising is to generate free media, to get local TV stations and newspapers to treat it as a news story."
Getting a boost beyond DC
To make the campaigns even more effective in markets outside of DC, CAF also works with local groups in most of the communities in which it runs activities. "In just about every community in the US, there exists a local coalition, often affiliated with [labor or liberal networks]," Hickey says. "Those grassroots folks have the credibility in their community to be quoted by the local media. Often we equip them with a news report... and they release it to their local media."
Although CAF does not have an AOR, it uses outside PR firms (including liberal stalwarts like Fenton Communications and M&R Strategic Services) on a project basis to help give its campaigns a boost in markets outside of Washington. Chaudhuri says that "they've helped us primarily with TV/ radio/print ad production and with local earned media around our mobilization efforts."
Jessica Smith, an account director at Fenton who has handled CAF projects, says the agency's most recent work involved the campaign to stave off Social Security privatization. "Where Social Security is concerned, Roger Hickey and (co-director) Bob Borosage are experts on the subject. They're well-known around Washington, and they're very articulate," she says. "They are very succinct, and they know how to boil complex issues down for reporters and make them manageable for the American public to read."
One DC political reporter, who asked not to be identified because she currently covers CAF activities, says that although the group is not a lobbying heavyweight within the walls of Congress, it is a scrappy voice that manages to wield influence through diligent and persistent communications.
"They're more proactive. They always come up with catchy slogans... they're very much out there," the reporter says. She adds that while CAF's liberal profile makes the group "easy to discredit" among its political foes, its responsive style of media relations ensures that its message is usually spread to its target grassroots audience.
The most prominent of CAF's campaigns over the past year highlight the group's coalition-building style and knack for publicity. To do battle against President George W. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, CAF shadowed the administration across the country on its 60-city, 60-day tour to sell the plan, holding competing press conferences and protests in the cities to argue that the plan would be bad for each community.
It also created town meetings that Hickey says "forced members of Congress to say whether they really wanted to cut people's benefits. We did a real organizing PR job in the districts where it really mattered, which turned out to be the heartland of the country."
On another front, the CAF helped create the "Apollo Alliance," which pushes clean, alternative energy sources as a source of jobs, as well as a path to energy independence.
With a coalition made up of environmentalists and labor unions - two groups that can often stand in opposition to each other - it has garnered press coverage as an example of "unlikely allies" working together.
Ultimately, the CAF will be judged on the success or failure of its policy positions, which have certainly not been the dominant political winners of the past decade. But win or lose, the group will never be accused of lacking a good sound bite.
"It's an agenda we call the 'Kitchen Table Agenda,'" Hickey says. "It's those big problems that have been getting worse in American life that average working families worry about at their kitchen table."
Senior communications associate
This article was first published on PR Week USA