Thriving on controversy, activism and the tireless efforts of local members, the Sierra Club has established itself as one of the most visible environmental groups in the nation. For over a century, Sierra Club has battled toe-to-toe with industry leaders, grabbing headlines and driving change.
Thriving on controversy, activism and the tireless efforts of local
members, the Sierra Club has established itself as one of the most
visible environmental groups in the nation. For over a century, Sierra
Club has battled toe-to-toe with industry leaders, grabbing headlines
and driving change.
A recent campaign targeted Ford’s new Excursion model sport utility
vehicle for its above-average gas consumption (only 14 miles to the
gallon). The Sierra Club nicknamed the truck ’Ford Valdez.’ Taking its
concerns to the press, the organization pounced on the SUV model as an
example of the global warming and pollution problem. Daniel Becker,
director of Sierra Club’s global warming and energy program, appeared on
CNN Talkback Live, and most major media outlets picked up the story.
Just before Earth Day last month, the Sierra Club endorsed Toyota’s
Prius, a new model that runs on both a combustion engine and an electric
motor. Nearly 100 major media outlets picked up the story, including The
Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.
While the Ford campaign generated national media attention, Sierra
Club’s local events - festivals and clean-ups around the country -
normally garner the most media coverage. Why was Sierra Club so
successful in getting Earth Day coverage when most groups were
struggling to compete with the Elian Gonzalez affair? ’Their Earth Day
philosophy of building programs from a local level instead of going
after the national audience, like so many other organizations, gave them
an edge,’ says Rozanne Weissman, director of communications and
marketing for the Alliance to Save Energy.
Members drive agenda
If you examine the clippings Sierra Club generates each week, you won’t
see the same one or two names representing the organization time and
Rather, hundreds of local members weave a solid network of support.
Indeed, the strength of Sierra Club’s PR lies in its 600,000 members,
who speak to the press and their communities as activists,
conservationists and environmentalists. ’The staff are here simply for
support. Members drive Sierra Club’s agenda, activities and actions,’
says press secretary Allen Mattison.
In fact, Sierra Club’s main initiatives are member-driven. Members
periodically vote on which environmental issues need to be addressed
nationally, and campaigns are then created around those concerns. Sierra
Club currently has four main campaigns, each with a coordinator located
in its Washington, DC office: clean water; stop sprawl; protect
wildlands; and end commercial logging in national forests.
Although one could argue that every Sierra Club member does PR, its
official PR operations are handled by a fulltime staff of eight
scattered across the country, headed by Daniel Silverman, director of
media relations in the San Francisco office. ’Dan has a strong
grass-roots background which gives him a great creative perspective,’
says Weissman. In Sierra Club’s Washington, DC office, which focuses on
lobbying as well as national campaigns, Mattison coordinates the
organization’s PR efforts.
Sierra Club has earned kudos for aligning its focus with the changing
times. ’The environmental movement has been developing from a primarily
wealthy, Anglo-based movement into a grass-roots, issue-based
Sierra Club has realized this sooner than some other groups - they’ve
adapted to a changing public mind-set,’ says Hal Dash, president of
Cerrell Associates, a public affairs and environmental PR agency in San
Mattison continues: ’Our PR process is web-shaped. Ideas can be
developed at the group level, the regional level, by individual members
or by our media team.’ When he and others have an idea, they seek out a
volunteer member, an expert on the field in question, to help develop a
plan of action. Not all volunteers have the time to devote toward media
relations and PR strategies, so Sierra Club staff may be asked to step
in. Sierra Club has 17 regional offices, nearly 65 chapters within those
regions and over 400 local groups, which all add to the overall
Meanwhile, Sierra Club lobbyists in Congress keep a watchful eye on
lawmakers and develop education and media relations programs for each
area. The organization intends to invest five to 10 years in programs to
achieve long-term goals of public awareness and legislative change.
’Sierra Club is a voice that’s not only heard but counted in the realm
of public affairs,’ says Dash. In recent years, Sierra has worked toward
employing at least one lobbyist in each state legislature.
But once again, the key is to act locally while not losing sight of the
big picture. Group members tend to focus on issues in their immediate
communities, extending the four primary campaigns to their own
backyards, while also confronting issues of conservation, clean-up and
sundry local environmental concerns. Snowmobile use may be an issue in
Massachusetts; saving the Redwood trees in California. ’People’s
neighbors are members of Sierra Club. When they raise issues, editors
understand that these ideas come from the community,’ says Mattison.
The recently launched Environmental Voter Education Campaign, an dollars
8 million project of which nearly half will go toward PR and grass-roots
efforts, is a perfect example of the Sierra Club’s various PR cylinders
firing in concert.’We have three goals: educate the public on the
environmental record of their elected officials, get the environmental
issues into local campaigns and lobbying elected officials for change,’
says Dan Weiss, the Sierra Club’s political director. National coverage
is only part of the picture since the main thrust of the campaign is on
Targeting political races
Rallies, door-to-door outreach, flyers and voter charts and guides have
been planned for most regions. Sierra Club has targeted close political
races, where ’the most difference can be made,’ Weiss explains. In New
York, senior representative Susan Holmes coordinates information on the
Senate race between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Clinton.
Giuliani’s failure to protect NY drinking water in accord with a 1997
EPA agreement has been revealed in press releases, ads and outreach to
the NY community, Holmes claims.
The wildlands campaign, meanwhile, focuses on saving forests, marshes,
deserts and mountains in danger of development and deforestation. Public
awareness will be fostered through a large grass-roots effort to get
comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The statement,
produced by the Forest Service, will suggest guidelines for managing
wild forests and comments could impact the measures recommended. Sierra
Club members not only organize local outreach, they also urge community
members to write letters to the editor, call their congressional
representatives and publicly support the cause. With every new voice,
Sierra Club gains greater visibility for the issues it champions.
Of course, with so much focus on the local level, the group’s PR success
is limited by the size of its membership. ’There is more work than there
are volunteers,’ says Peter Muto, chair for the John Muir Chapter of the
Sierra Club. With environmental concerns often getting short shrift from
today’s Internet-crazed media, the Sierra Club needs to keep its
membership rolls full and motivated if it hopes to keep its voice
PR chief: Daniel Silverman, media relations director (based in San
PR staff: Allen Mattison, press secretary; six other full-time PR
employees scattered around 16 regional offices. Regional office
directors also handle PR responsibilities.