ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: ACLU brings passion and patriotism to rebranding effort

Though its time is mostly spent fighting for all Americans' civil rights, the ACLU is best known for defending society's most reviled. Douglas Quenqua looks at the group's plan to educate the public on its actual mission.

Though its time is mostly spent fighting for all Americans' civil rights, the ACLU is best known for defending society's most reviled. Douglas Quenqua looks at the group's plan to educate the public on its actual mission.

Corporate PR heads love to complain that their bosses don't consider the PR repercussions when making executive decisions. Emily Tyne brags about it. "We will look at a case and consider the PR implications, but it doesn't mean we won't take the case," she boasts. "The bottom line is, we decide based on principle and policy." Tyne is communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the self-appointed defender of all things Constitutional - public sympathies be damned. Child molesters, terrorists, drug dealers - the ACLU is usually the first to stand up for their rights, whether in courts of law or public opinion. It's a modus operandi that's inspired such public plaudits as an article from satire rag The Onion headlined "ACLU Defends Nazis' Right to Burn Down ACLU Headquarters." Sure it's a joke, but it says a lot about the ACLU's image. Too often taking sides with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan has fed the notion that the ACLU has great concern for freedom in the abstract, but little heed for the realities of a dangerous world. But the fact is that racists and violent criminals account for an impossibly small percentage of the cases handled by the 83-year-old group. In reality, the ACLU's primary concern is helping regular people who only have the Bill of Rights on their side. Even a peripheral glance at its true work reveals the ACLU to be a group obsessed with patriotism and defense of the American Way. They're fond of saying the Constitution is their only client. Unfortunately, as nice as that may sound, it will never be fodder for as snappy an editorial as "It's Unlikely that Burning a Cross is a Harmless Act" (from the strikingly non-satirical Virginian-Pilot). So the ACLU PR team doesn't exactly have it easy. "There are some outlets, both print and broadcast, that will never really be interested in writing the civil liberties stories I pitch them," explains head of media relations Emily Whitfield. "However, the second we have some sex offender, they can't get me on the air fast enough." To combat such misperceptions, the ACLU hired a West Coast firm, Benenson/Janson, to lead an upcoming $2 million push. And that price tag covers just the first of several years (exactly how many has yet to be decided, but smart money goes on the long-term). Getting off the fringe The ACLU is determined to show the world that its mission is about more than abstract notions of liberty. "This campaign is all about fighting the impression that we're a fringe organization," she says. "When Bush ran against Dukakis, he accused him of being a 'card-carrying member of the ACLU' as if there were something unpatriotic about that," recalls Tyne, the one-time founder of her own nonprofit PR firm, the Communications Consortium Media Center. "We represent core Democratic values. We want to convey the notion that it's unpatriotic not to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU." Ironically, patriotism may have already taken the first step in establishing that. Civil liberties issues came into sharp relief following September 11. With the government boldly tightening the reigns in the name of national security, Americans of all stripes instinctively turned to the ACLU for protection and, strangely, comfort. "In the days, weeks, and months after 9/11, our process line received thousands of calls," says Phil Gutis, director of legislative communications in Washington, DC. "Sometimes we'd average one a minute." Membership, which had been flat for years, leapt 12% after the attacks. Media and legislative interest spiked as well. For example, Gutis' staff spent long days in 2002 just helping reporters and lawmakers decipher The Patriot Act, a bill granting the government expansive new powers of search and seizure. Journalists who'd never shown an interest in civil liberties before began leaning heavily on Gutis' staff in order to make sense of the bill and its impact. "Congressional staffers and lawmakers called us afterward, and said 'What did we just sign?'" laughs Whitfield. Changing perceptions in the media Linda Greenhouse, The New York Times' Supreme Court correspondent, cites the ACLU as one of her more valuable resources. "I read all their briefs," she says. "They're very knowledgeable about the courts. They send me updates on cases and assessments of what's going on." She gives the PR team a top grade for responsiveness as well, but warns that the ACLU's distinct point of view is, well, distinct. "The reason reporters go to them is to get the liberal civil-liberties view on an issue," she says, "so they have no reason to try and pretend they are calling it right down the middle." The massive communications team is spread out all across America. Headquartered in New York, the ACLU has at least one affiliate office in every state, and each office has its own, largely sovereign, PR staff. Orders occasionally come down from New York or Washington regarding the official stance on a particular issue or court case, and intelligence will occasionally flow upward from affiliates looking for support on a local issue. But apropos of a libertarian organization, the ACLU is usually content to let the locals govern themselves. Overall, Tyne says they are on par to spend $3 million in 2002, and, rebranding campaign notwithstanding, about the same in 2003. Meanwhile, Tyne's team is launching a $3.5 million, 18-month integrated effort called the Safe and Free Campaign. The hope is to convince Americans that they don't have to give up their civil liberties, as the ACLU believes the Bush administration is asking, in order to have security in a post-9/11 society. The entirely in-house effort combines grassroots initiatives with an aggressive ad campaign. The first spot features the hand of Attorney General John Ashcroft crossing out entire swaths of the Constitution, replacing, "We the people," with "We the Government," for example, and scrawling "Secret Trials" in red ink over the entire Sixth Amendment. One could be forgiven for mistaking the ACLU for a fringe group after seeing the antagonistic spot, especially in an age when even Democratic leaders eagerly sing in the War and Tax Cuts chorus. But Gutis, for one, is unapologetic - particularly with the GOP holding every seat of power in Washington, and Bush claiming a mandate to pursue his conservative agenda. "I don't think any government official is evil, but some of the policies they are pursuing - the 'Trust us, we're the government' line - we've seen it over and over again, and they just don't seem to get it," he cries. "With things like COINTELPRO and the Martin Luther King investigations, government action in the heat of the moment is often excessive, and we always have to go back 20 years later and say we're sorry. If I could sit down with Ashcroft, that's what I'd like to explain to him." It's unlikely Ashcroft will be sitting down with any ACLU PR execs in the near future, but don't expect that to deter them. Say what you will about their politics (or their clients), their passion for the work is palpable. They love talking about it, each holding forth with the eagerness of a true believer in a time of crisis. And you can't overestimate the PR implications of that. ---- ACLU Executive director Anthony D. Romero Communications director Emily Tyne Director of media relations Emily Whitfield Media relations associates Richard Alleyne, Kini Schoop Director of legislative communications Phil Gutis Legislative media relations associate Gabe Rottman

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in