MEDIA ROUNDUP: Activists enter the mainstream to push their causes

Advocacy groups have always been on the media's radar, but an effort to make the general public take notice has earned them unprecedented coverage for their causes.

Advocacy groups have always been on the media's radar, but an effort to make the general public take notice has earned them unprecedented coverage for their causes.

No matter what the cause, activists and advocacy groups often face uphill battles to convince the public, government officials, or corporations to adopt their side of an issue. While the media's role is important, opinions - and ultimately public policy - often change at a snail's pace, and journalists can lose interest well before any changes are made. "It's easier to get a story out these days because you've got 24-7 news cycles," says Kathy Bonk, founder of the Washington, DC-based Communications Consortium Media Center. "But the flip side of that is one placement usually doesn't create a tipping point. In order to have an effective campaign, you've got to reach that point where everyone is talking about it." Getting an issue to that point can be hard, in part because most outlets don't generally have a reporter dedicated to advocacy or activism. "There is a philanthropy beat for some reporters, but maybe only 10% of publications have that," says Jason Salzman, president of Cause Communications and the author of Making the News: A Guide for Non-Profits and Activists. "So in most cases you have to pitch the beat reporter who most closely overlaps with your issue." There have always been outlets spanning the political spectrum willing to cover advocacy and activists, including progressive outlets such as Harper's and The Nation and conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and National Review. But while still influential, the clout of these magazines has arguably been diminished by the sheer volume of outlets. Even the alternative weekly newspapers, such as The Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, and San Francisco's Bay Area Reader, aren't quite the crusaders they used to be. "They are more into lifestyle trends," Salzman says. "The edge has been dulled, although there are still lots of opportunities. But I try to get advocacy groups a focus on alternative outlets because I think advocacy needs to mainstream their message." In order to reach the mainstream, groups have gotten more shrewd about PR, partly because government officials are now more likely to be swayed by the media. "At present, policy is made by what's on the front page of The Washington Post and The New York Times," says Bonk. "There are numerous examples of how media ended up driving a piece of public-policy legislation." Timing is everything Bonk notes that timing is critical. "The challenge that nonprofit advocacy groups face is that what was a yawn to a reporter in Washington six weeks ago can quickly become front-page news." One example of that is the assistance Bonk had been providing to The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other civil rights groups seeking to raise awareness on judgeships during the Bush administration. "When we had our first press conference on Judge (Dennis) Shedd's nomination, it was all we could do to get C-Span and a wire service reporter to show up," she says. "The New York Times and The Washington Post wouldn't go." But because of the Trent Lott controversy, various aspects of race relations and civil rights, including who was being appointed to federal judgeships, suddenly became a hot topic for national political reporters and columnists. "If the advocacy group isn't nimble enough to move the story when the reporter is ready to move, they're not going to help frame those stories," Bonk says. One activist group that has successfully managed to maintain a high profile is PETA. With the right types of visually arresting protests, celebrity support, and even the occasional use of nudity in its advertising, PETA regularly gets coverage for its campaigns. Communications Officer Colleen O'Brien says much of the reason for this is a solid understanding of what the media looks for in a story. "We're living in a time where people want to see quick pictures that tell a story," she says, citing PETA's recent protest of model Giselle Bundchen at the Victoria's Secret fashion show, complete with protesters leaping on the runway with "Giselle is Fur Scum" placards. "It was great in that it was eye-catching," she explains. O'Brien also recommends looking into lifestyle publications and programs that on the surface may not look like good fits. "With youth and teen magazines, I'll call up and say 'Hey, we heard this actor is a vegetarian and we're thinking of having him do an ad for us. Do you think this would be something your readers are interested in?'" she says. "In many cases, they'll say yes." Surprising sources of attention A growing number of publications and TV and radio programs have a distinct ideological bent. But even outlets that appear politically opposed to your client's issue can still be used to deliver the right message. "Ironically, outlets like Fox News Channel provide more avenues for advocacy on the progressive side of issues because they have to balance their coverage," says David Lerner, president of New York-based Riptide Communications. The concern is that programming of this kind can quickly disintegrate into shouting matches. "They do look for both sides to fill the air, but often for entertainment purposes, not debate," says Lisa Witter, EVP with Fenton Communications. "So we do let our clients on these shows, but it requires deeper media training and strict message discipline." There is the perception that advocacy groups and activists are only interested in influencing government officials, and thus center most of their efforts on DC and the 50 state capitals. "But the challenge is to win in the court of public opinion," says Witter. "The best way to do that is to get out there and win issues in the home. We do a lot of press conferences with a national theme, and follow up with pitches to local reporters because that's where the action happens." But to get coverage you need more than just a cause, no matter how noble it may be. "Journalists will report it if it's a good story," says Lerner "even if at its heart it's an advocacy story." Salzman adds that advocacy isn't even necessarily a hard sell, noting, "Most reporters like talking to activists because they're more likely to speak on the record and be more forthcoming than government officials." A good example has been the efforts of Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organization, to get Augusta Country Club to admit female members. "Sports reporters are going crazy over it because they normally only write about scores," says Witter. "This is an advocacy story." Given the breadth of advocacy issues and news "categories," it is nearly impossible to list the most influential journalists. However, there's no doubt that the work of columnists such as The New York Times' Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman, the Los Angeles Times' Robert Scheer, and syndicated writers such as William Safire and Arianna Huffington, have influence on a variety of issues. But Bonk points out that for many advocacy group and issues, getting beyond traditional news coverage and weaving into pop culture and entertainment is what can really sway popular opinion. "Coverage of the women in Afghanistan after the Taliban has provided a moment in history for the global women's movement to really move their message," she says. "The fact that Oprah has been covering it is making a huge difference. We have focus groups where the women come in and say, 'Hey, I saw that on Oprah.'" ------ Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Boston Globe; The Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; USA Today; New York Post; Chicago Tribune; The Miami Herald; Christian Science Monitor Magazines National Review; The Weekly Standard; The Nation; Harper's; The Atlantic Monthly; Vanity Fair; YM; Marie Claire; Time; Newsweek; US News & and World Report; Essence; The Progressive Magazine; The American Prospect TV & Radio The O'Reilly Factor; Hannity & Colmes; MSNBC; CNN; Fox News Channel; NPR; Pacifica Radio; Rush Limbaugh Internet;;

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