Persistence and passion fuel the activist efforts of aptly
acronymed MADD, whose members hope that powerful mix is the ingredient
to end drunk driving for good. Sherri Deatherage Green reports.
For an activist organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) wears
a lot of establishment trappings. It boasts some two million supporters,
and its annual revenue has approached $50 million. Its donor list
reads like a who's who of organizations other activists might target -
ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, government agencies, the US' leading automakers,
"It's an activist organization on an issue that everybody agrees with,"
observes Bruce Freidrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PETA), who ran afoul of MADD two years ago with the anti-milk "Got
Beer?" campaign. "Nobody wants to be in MADD's bad graces."
The organization turned 21 last year, just barely old enough to legally
imbibe, thanks in large part to its 1980s efforts to raise the national
drinking age. Candy Lightner, a Sacramento realtor and divorced mother
of three, founded MADD after her daughter was killed by a chronic drunk
driver. PR has been at the forefront of the movement from the beginning,
when grieving moms monitored DWI cases and exposed wrist-slapping
Lightner served as a highly visible and motivated spokesperson. A 1983
television movie about her life boosted membership by the thousands. She
left in 1985 under murky circumstances, says Martin Wooster, who studied
MADD for the Capital Research Center (CRC), a conservative watchdog
group that keeps tabs on nonprofits. Whether she resigned or was forced
out remains unclear, but Wooster says that MADD later became a "highly
centralized, professionalized, and PR-dependent organization."
MADD continued to effectively push for tougher alcohol laws and
enforcement, popularize phrases like "designated driver," and change
In fact, alcohol-related traffic deaths have dropped 40% in its
So what does MADD have left to be mad about?
Plenty, says 31-year-old PR director Tresa Coe Hardt, who will soon
become a mother herself. While she admits that MADD's own success has
created a major PR obstacle, the faithful still believe that one
drunk-driving fatality is one too many.
MADD has updated its policies and communications thrust to become more
inclusive and relevant. The organization removed the stipulation that
its presidents be women (they still must be DWI victims), and added
prevention of underage drinking to its mission statement. Youth-related
activities include developing glitzy presentations for school
assemblies, establishing youth-in-action groups, and the founding of the
first UMADD college chapter in Boston late last year.
A new mix of messages
One of MADD's key communications strategies this year is to boost
awareness of the services it provides to drunk-driving victims. "We are
the biggest crime victims' assistance organization in the world," Hardt
notes. After September 11, MADD partnered with other groups to issue
several press releases providing tips on coping with post-traumatic
In fact, Hardt's team of four spends much of its time honing PR
strategies to carry out goals set by MADD's volunteer-dominated board.
"Because PR plays such an important role for our organization, I feel
like we have more of a voice," Hardt says, citing that as her reason for
staying at the nonprofit.
After the PR group lays out campaign plans, MADD's marketers find the
money to make them a reality. In the 1990s, some criticized MADD's use
of telephone solicitors to raise funds, but Hardt says that the
organization has tried to shift focus to corporate sponsorships and
Still, according to its 2000 annual report, individual contributions and
special events accounted for nearly half its revenue.
Hardt makes a distinction between media relations and media
MADD uses the former to change individual behavior through a plethora of
programs often backed by corporate sponsors. Examples include Tie One On
for Safety, Rating the States, and the recently launched Pasa Las Llaves
("Pass the Keys") campaign targeting Hispanics. Juggling so many
programs means adhering to a calendar, as well as prioritizing reaction
to incoming press inquiries. Despite the time crunch, reporters say that
MADD's PR team responds quickly, and usually sets up interviews with
local chapter officials.
Stirring up trouble
Hardt stops just short of suggesting that some organizations
intentionally draw MADD into public debates to gain exposure for their
own causes. PETA's Freidrich denies that his organization had that in
mind - or intended to promote underage drinking - with its short-lived
"Got Beer?" ads. "The only reason anyone would want to object to this
campaign is to gain publicity by objecting to this campaign, and more
power to them," says Freidrich, adding that MADD refused a conciliatory
$500 donation from PETA staffers.
Media advocacy, on the other hand, is the phrase MADD uses to describe
its building grassroots support for legislative issues. To this end,
Hardt's staff works closely with public policy director Brandy Anderson.
Having won the battle to lower the nation's legal blood alcohol level,
MADD has since pushed a proposed constitutional amendment on crime
victims' rights, and lobbied for a federally funded anti-youth-drinking
ad campaign. To refute claims by liquor and hospitality industry groups
that MADD wants to reinstate prohibition, the organization claims it
doesn't oppose responsible alcohol consumption by adults: It didn't
fight NBC's recent decision to run ads for hard liquor so long as the
spots adhere to strict guidelines.
"We're just as concerned about the Budweiser frogs," Hardt explains.
However, MADD does hope to convince the government to fund a counter
campaign aimed at kids.
But you won't see Hardt or media relations director Misty Moyse quoted
that often. MADD prefers to put its volunteer leaders out front, like
national president Millie Webb, who was severely burned and lost a
daughter and nephew in a drunk-driving accident. "MADD initially was
putting a face on the problem by encouraging victims to tell their
stories," Hardt says. In fact, many people forced to deal with reporters
after becoming victims of drunk drivers later join MADD, and those who
want to continue publicizing their stories receive media training.
Mitsubishi is MADD's partner on Pasa Las Llaves, and communications VP
Gael O'Brien says that personal experience makes MADD members effective
spokespeople. "They believe so totally and completely in what they're
doing that that just emanates from them," she says.
But finding faces to put on the story has become more difficult as the
number of people affected by drunk driving declines. This fact, combined
with the post-September-11 funding crunch challenging many nonprofits,
may put some large MADD chapters in peril, Wooster predicts.
However, MADD seems to have won most of its battles. By pushing
increasingly harsh alcohol laws, MADD risks marginalizing itself in the
eyes of Americans who enjoy a beer after work, Wooster opines. "Is there
a point at which MADD can or will declare victory?" he asks in his CRC
Not likely, Hardt says. "I feel like we will always have new roads
MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING (MADD)
Headquarters: Irving, TX
National president: Millie Webb
National executive director: Dean Wilkerson
PR director: Tresa Coe Hardt
Media relations director: Misty Moyse
Public policy director: Brandy Anderson
Marketing director: Doug Kingsrighter
Outside PR support: MADD often works with the PR departments of
sponsoring corporations and the PR firms they employ