PROFILE: Lerner's Riptide helps the underdogs tell their stories

From a tiny New York office, David Lerner has managed to educate, inform, and even mobilize hundreds of thousands in support of left-wing issues by 'placing stories' - not by using PR speak.

From a tiny New York office, David Lerner has managed to educate, inform, and even mobilize hundreds of thousands in support of left-wing issues by 'placing stories' - not by using PR speak.

Many of the 400,000 who crowded Manhattan streets on February 15 to protest the war on Iraq found their way there because of the frantic efforts of just a handful of people, some of whom work in a small, nondescript office in Greenwich Village. The office would be rough going as a studio apartment for one, and it appears to be a tight workspace for Riptide Communications' tiny staff. Only the length of a well-worn couch separates the desk of the senior publicist from that of the president, David Lerner, who on an April day when bombs were still falling in the Middle East, was chatting about an upcoming media placement within earshot of a visitor. His conversation over, Lerner, in the quickened cadence of man who's spent a long time working in New York City and jawing with reporters on deadline, spends the next hour or so explaining public relations as he practices it: no frills and bare bones. He talks about pushing photographers out of protesters' way and guarding celebrities at the antiwar rally. He talks about training immigrant day-laborers on Long Island on how to talk to reporters. And he talks about drawing the media's attention to civil-rights lawsuits, even when they don't have a prayer of succeeding. But even more striking than the story of the career of this progressive publicist is the way in which he narrates it: that is, with the passion of a lifelong activist - the son of a Bronx schoolteacher who once chained herself to the White House - whose clients' politics are in harmony with his own. "We don't work with people whose perspective we don't share. We never have," he says. "We'll work for the underdog in virtually any circumstance." The list of underdogs Riptide has represented in its 14-year history has grown to include David Ronald Chandler, the federal death-row inmate pardoned by President Clinton, an organization for restaurant employees thrown out of work by September 11, as well as immigrant workers and labor unions. The agency was also behind the coverage of Danny Glover's high-profile criticism of racial profiling by taxicab drivers and the exoneration of Alger Hiss. Few of these are topics the press is eager to cover, which is what makes Lerner and his firm so important to his progressive clients. "David's so refreshing because most of the media don't know the issues that are important to this community," says Saru Jayaraman, executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center. "He's been showing us how to get the media's attention." Despite the steepness of the challenge he faces in getting his causes into mainstream news, Lerner's take on media relations in fairly simple: Know the reporters you can go to even if their beats or specialties don't coincide with your issue. "Who covers lefty events? No one," he laments. "It's about being creative - using columns and columnists and friendly reporters, of which, there are a lot out there." Lerner doesn't partake in the jargon many PR practitioners use. Only with obvious self-consciousness does he use terms like "messaging" and, surprisingly for someone working in margins of politics, he's reluctant to wax too philosophical on the state of the media. "The corporate media are not neutral observers," he says. "They're players. There is not enough airtime - print is a lot better - devoted to dissenting views." Then, after a brief pause, he adds, "We're not media activists. We place stories." Placing stories has been Lerner's business since the 1980s, when he went to work for The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the nonprofit founded by a group of legendary civil-rights attorneys that included William Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy. Lerner was fresh from several years overseas. He had attended Friends World College, a Quaker institute his friends jokingly called "state-of-mind university," which required him to travel for his degree. This meant that he spent his college years in places like Bogota living with the homeless. Following that, he worked for several years in a neighborhood law center in a legal social-work position. In New York, his first job in media relations involved nothing less than publicizing lawsuits of political import, such as a successful attempt to expose a domestic spying operation by the FBI. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in being a quick learner, according to one of the center's most prominent attorneys, its current president Michael Ratner. "He was quite rapid," Ratner says. "What he was rapid about was not mucking around with the smaller outlets. He would go for The New York Times and other major outlets." In 1989, Lerner and Kathy Engel, founder of the human-rights group MADRE, each left their jobs and formed Riptide Communications, so named because, Lerner says, "we conceived of it as a countervailing force to the right-wing tide of Reaganism, which was in full force at the time." The new company's first clients were MADRE and CCR, and before long it found itself in the middle of a host of labor- and human-rights controversies. When asked to name his most successful campaigns, Lerner isn't as quick as one might expect to cite his company's contribution to the antiwar campaign, an effort that mobilized thousands and became lead stories in most media outlets. But that's not because he views the campaign as a failure. "This is a long-term business," he says. "The peace movement in general is part of the reason why the US and its allies are concerned about civilian casualties. In the end, the peace movement is right. We're pleased that a dictator is gone. War just isn't the way to do it." ----- David Lerner 1989-present Founder and president of Riptide Communications 1983-1989 Press representative, The Center for Constitutional Rights 1980-1983 Legal secretary, The Center for Constitutional Rights 1972-1980 Studied abroad at Friends World College; worked on a number of service projects, including legal advocacy in the UK, Spain, and Latin America 1971 Paralegal for William Kunstler

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