In 1989, no cause was cooler than Amnesty International. It's Human
Rights Now! tour, featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Sting,
was the summer's hottest ticket in over a dozen countries.
Amnesty had caught one of those lucky breaks in time when its message
reflected the mood of an era. It was, quite simply, hipper than any
multinational nonprofit organization had any right to be.
Twelve years later, things have cooled off a bit. Of course, with over a
million members worldwide - its best numbers ever - no one is sounding
the death knell for this now 40-year-old group, but even its director of
communications, Karen Schneider, admits that Amnesty's public image is a
pale reflection of what it once was.
Schneider, previously a nonprofit consultant, says, "I came in with a
mandate to recreate the department - to make it far more proactive,
dynamic, and energetic, and therefore help raise visibility."
Her appointment two-and-a-half years ago was prompted by a
recommendation from Fenton Communications. Amnesty's marketing staff had
"not really jelled as a vibrant, dynamic department (for some time),"
says Schneider, so Fenton recommended bringing in someone senior to pull
together all the departments.
The former regional newspaper reporter claims she practically rebuilt
the department from scratch. "I came and I quickly plunged into making a
new structure and a new budget," she recalls. "First I focused on
building up the infrastructure and the media relations unit, because
there really weren't any systems at all. We didn't even have a system
for logging media calls - someone was using a yellow legal pad."
When she arrived, the Amnesty communications staff numbered eight people
and operated with a $900,000 budget. In the fiscal year beginning
October 2001, Schneider will be hiring two more staff members, bringing
the total to 17 employees and the operating budget to $2.2
The communications operation is now divided into three groups: media
relations, marketing/advertising, and new media (Amnesty's Web site can
be found at www.aiusa.org).
As part of her mission to reclaim the elusive "buzz," there are plans to
debut a new artist relations division. This unit is forming largely to
service a new mini-group within the organization, 'Artists for
"I think through the concerts we became very identified with musical
artists, but we've also had literary artists and film people who've
worked on our behalf," she says. Artists for Amnesty is expected to
launch later this year.
A new image for an old fight
Along the way, Schneider also decided that Amnesty could stand to go
through a branding audit, executed pro-bono by NY advertising firm
Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners.
That led to the current branding campaign, complete with new ads and
signature earth-tone colors, which now adorn everything from the
organization's Web site to its marketing materials and business
The print ads, which began running in January, feature the pictures and
stories of everyday people who have taken action against human rights
abuses. "Most people feel that human rights problems are very far
removed from their own lives, they feel powerless," says Schneider.
"We surmised that we needed an ad campaign that spoke to
college-educated people between 25 and 50 who had some understanding of
issues and social policy. We wanted to communicate to them that they can
actually make a difference - that really simple actions can lead to
Spreading the message
If Amnesty has a problem, it's the lack of high-profile prisoners like
Nelson Mandela. But there's still plenty to trouble the conscience of
Amnesty's current campaign focuses on stopping torture. That effort
includes talking to reporters, holding events centered on the theme, and
incorporating anti-torture activists into promotional materials.
The newest project is something called FAST: Fast Action Stops
FAST is an online network that sends out electronic notices to all
subscribers - Amnesty members or otherwise - about the pending plight of
When Amnesty learns of someone who is being tortured or is at risk of
being tortured, an email is shot out to participants around the world
telling them what they can do to take action. The idea is that torturers
require secrecy, and when their actions are exposed, the torture is less
likely to take place.
While motivating action among the public is tough, garnering press is a
little easier. This is due largely to the fact that reporters see the
nonprofit as one of the most reliable and respected authorities on human
rights cases throughout the world.
Chris Marquez, a general assignment writer for The New York Times, says
Amnesty is "one of two calls you make when trying to get up to speed on
the human rights record of a given country. I'll ordinarily check with
the State Department Human Rights Report and then touch base with either
Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. When you do that, you get a reasonably
well-rounded idea of what the issues are."
As for outside PR help, Amnesty is happy to accept it when it's offered,
but is rarely able to pay for it, and has no agency of record. Two
DC-based agencies that have pitched in recently are McKinney & McDowell
Associates and PR Solutions. McKinney helped out with 1999's campaign
against American human rights violations while PR Solutions worked on
the launch of a recent report on women and torture.
But even more exciting to Schneider is the recent efforts of Jere
Sullivan, managing director of Edelman PR's Washington, DC office.
Sullivan has recruited other PR execs from across the country onto an
unofficial communications advisory board, which is just getting
Sullivan says, "So many of Amnesty's issues are big and broad; I thought
it might be helpful for Karen to gain the perspective of some of the
people in our industry, who would approach the issues as if we were
selling a brand."
Though Sullivan is not a member of Amnesty yet, he still has the form on
his desk. He came to know the organization through his work with Edelman
client Bacardi, which "strategically" donates beverages every year to
As for the future, Amnesty is planning a concert for later this year in
Los Angeles. Schneider isn't ready to talk about which artists will
But hasn't Amnesty already done the concert thing? "It's not that you
want to go back to the past and recreate the concerts of the '80s. But I
want to energize us again so people are talking about us in the streets
and at cocktail parties - wherever people congregate."
DEPUTY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS: Karen Schneider Director of
ADVERTISING: Helen Garrett
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS: Gwen Fitzgerald
DIRECTOR OF INTERNET COMMUNICATIONS: Joe Baker
ARTIST LIAISON: Bonnie Abaunza
ANNUAL PR BUDGET: $2.2 million for 2001/2002