Cathy Renna has been a PR officer at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation (GLAAD) since it was founded in 1995. As director of
news media, Renna was part of the protest against Eminem's performance
at this year's Grammy awards and she was on the front lawn of the
Laramie County Courthouse in Wyoming the morning Matthew Shepard died
from wounds inflicted by violent anti-gay youths.
However, Renna worries that GLAAD's time in the spotlight has created a
misperception: While it is an advocate for the lesbian and gay
community, its goal is media education in order to create greater
acceptance of gays and lesbians in society. 'We are not simply a PR firm
for the gay community,' says Renna.
'I think a lot of people don't know we do things other than these
high-profile campaigns. A lot of what I do is educational work with
reporters and editors.'
Becoming a well-oiled PR machine
Heading the entire PR operation is communications director, Steve
Spurgeon, affectionately nicknamed the 'orchestra leader.' Spurgeon
joined two years ago and put into practice what he learned at Ketchum,
Fleishman-Hillard, Golin/Harris International and as communications
director for Nissan North America. He helped transform GLAAD into a
mini-agency with one client: itself.
'When I got here, there were three employees who were in a perpetual
state of exhaustion because they did everything,' says Spurgeon. 'What
I've had to do is create the talent pool within GLAAD to mirror the
kinds of services we would have purchased. Now we have someone to
specialize in research, news and in entertainment images.' The 10-strong
PR staff has a full-time media trainer and several media coordinators on
staff to deal with national, regional, and other press categories.
Spurgeon says the first real test of his PR division was when Paramount
gave radio therapist Dr. Laura Schlessinger her own TV show. 'Dr. Laura
was really the first time GLAAD had mounted a multi-month and multi-year
campaign,' says Spurgeon. 'It was a proactive campaign in which we
identified the issue early on, understood the potential ramifications
and where that could go in the public consciousness.'
Renna says the campaign's goals were to create a national discussion
about defamatory comments. Though the show is still on the air, she
feels the campaign was a success. 'P&G was the first major national
company to drop its advertising and that showed our community was
serious about this and we were not to be shooed away.'
Outreach for the campaign began in the gay and lesbian press, where
'potential foot soldiers' were educated on the issues. On its Web site,
GLAAD created talking points, fact sheets and press releases for
download by activists.
GLAAD also made a cassette tape containing some of the offensive
statements Dr. Laura had made.
Renna answers critics charging that GLAAD's protests were an effort to
curtail Schlessinger's freedom of speech by saying the issue is
corporate responsibility, not individual rights. 'The first amendment
does not guarantee anyone the right to a nationally syndicated talk
show,' says Renna. 'Dr. Laura can stand on a street corner or buy her
own TV station and say anything she wants. But when Paramount makes a
decision to put on that programming, we have a right to exercise our
voice as consumers to say we do not want that.'
Mixed feelings from 'within'
But inside the gay community, GLAAD has received negative press for
backing down from the campaign. Michelangelo Signorile, editor at large
for Gay.com, wrote on September 12, 2000, 'Why isn't GLAAD more mad
about Dr. Laura's TV program?' He complained that GLAAD was behind the
curve on the protests and that the Web site StopDrLaura.com, set up by
Wired Strategies' John Aravosis, was the real motivator of the
'GLAAD abdicated leadership many months ago when it failed to demand
that Paramount Television drop plans to produce the show,' wrote
Signorile, adding that GLAAD tried to make an ill-advised deal with the
But while gay activists may imply that the organization was pandering to
the studio, Renna defends it by saying that while the name was not
mentioned in every story, much of the coverage of the debate was
GLAAD-influenced. 'We're much more proactive than we have ever been,'
says Renna. 'Our mission is making sure there is good coverage, not to
necessarily get our name out there.'
The organization was not in the background, however, during recent
controversy over lyrics on an album by rapper Eminem. Spurgeon admits
that campaign may have made some errors. The message got muddled when
gay celebrity Elton John chose to perform with Eminem at the Grammy
awards. 'The story took a turn and put us in a defensive position and
made the story 'Why are you attacking Eminem?' when we were really
attacking the consequences of his lyrics,' says Spurgeon. 'It became,
'If Elton John thinks he's okay, he must be okay,' which wasn't where we
wanted the conversation to go.'
GLAAD will continue its efforts against what it sees as the hate-speech
of Eminem and Dr. Laura, but Renna says the new challenge at GLAAD is
representing homosexual diversity. She says bisexuality is often covered
poorly in the media and she is also dissatisfied with the lack of
coverage of gay and lesbian people of religious faith, of color and in
Mary McNamara, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, was recently
working on a story about the transgender community and found GLAAD
helpful as a background resource. She had never contacted the agency
before, and she credits their knowledge with helping transform the
article from a small piece to a two-part series which debuted on the
newspaper's front page.
'I had no understanding of the transgender movement, and GLAAD was able
to provide a nice framework for me,' says McNamara, adding that the
story she's working on now, a piece about 'slash fiction' (fiction
written by fans that implies straight, pop-culture characters are gay)
is the result of a conversation she had with someone at GLAAD.
Says Renna: 'We're working to get the media past the stereotype that all
gay people are rich white men with Jeeps that go on vacation four times
a year.' He adds, 'Racism, sexism and gender identity, that's my
frontier right now.'
Executive director: Joan Garry
Director of communications: Stephen Spurgeon
News media director: Cathy Renna
Regional media director: Kevin McClelland
Entertainment media director: Scott Seomin
Entertainment media manager: Nick Adams.