GW Associates Public Media

Activists and the Mass Media—Dancing with the Devil

Martin Luther King had a favorite saying, "One tiny little minute, just sixty seconds in it. I can't refuse. I dare not abuse it. It's up to me to use it." Today we call it the sound bite.

King and Andrew Young, who was the resident Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) expert in dealing with the media understood the importance of the role of the media, particularly the new technology of television.

In the planning session for Birmingham, Young emphasized the need for a new kind of daily message, one that was visual and which would dramatize the purpose of the campaign each day.

King and Young knew that if they were to move the Kennedy administration into supporting a broad civil rights bill, they had to have public opinion on their side.

The Movement Today

The lessons of the civil rights movement under King and Young's leadership are just as valid today as valid today as when they were being employed in the in the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 60's.

The civil rights leaders understood the necessity of linking a media strategy with their local actions to amplify the Movement message to the American public in order to help their lobbying in Washington to pass a broad civil rights bill.

To be successful in progressive campaigns involving public policy issues we need to mobilize public opinion to support our efforts.

It is highly unlikely that a handful of activists, no matter how dedicated or righteous will achieve their goals if the majority of the public does not support their efforts or sympathize with their goals.

However, as the early civil rights activists demonstrated, a relatively small number of activists can achieve dramatic results when their message is amplified and dramatized through the mass media.

The Activist "Corporate Culture" Regarding the Media

In my role as a public relations consultant I am in contact with progressive organizations across the country involved with a variety of issues from the war in Iraq, civil rights of Arab Americans, US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, recycling issues affecting municipalities, refugee concerns, racism in the US, organized labor and occupational safety issues etc.

I was responsible for helping arrange hundreds of interviews as an activist volunteer in the 80's in local broadcast and print media in Central New York on issues mentioned above and on a few occasions broke into national media. above. In the 90's when I started doing professional press work I worked more on the national and international levelplacing stories in the NY times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, BBC etc.

In my 35 years as an activist dating back to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights work in Mississippi, there are two dominant messages that stand out regarding activists and lack of coverage generated by the mass media.. If there isn't coverage of an event the reason given is usually because of "corporate control of the media or the media doesn't care about our events."

I have never heard an activist say we didn't get media coverage because our press work was poor or our media strategy was flawed. There seems to be an attitude that the media owes us coverage on our activities regardless of what we do.

This produces an environment where low priority is placed on developing public relations skills, allocating resources for press work and making the integration of a media plan as part of the overall strategy a priority.

In three decades of living in Syracuse, New York, I can only remember one media training workshop offered by an activist organization. While Syracuse has a good sized activist community and a peace organization dating back almost 70 years, the workshop was cancelled due to a lack of interest.

Why Activists Don't Embrace Press Work

Having worked both sides of the fence I've found that press work is different than most activist activities.

Press work by its nature is a solitary activity. It is you and the media - a reporter, editor or producer. You draft a press release and make a "pitch" to an individual. It is essentially sales.

You and many other individuals are competing for limited "news holes." You have some piece of news: an event, a speaker, an op-ed piece .... that you want to sell to someone from the media to cover or accept so you can get a message to the public.

Press work is very different than most activities that activist participate in and has a different emotional feel to it.

From civil rights work in Mississippi; to civil disobedience in Washington, DC; to leading delegations in Nicaragua I know how activism can empower and inspire. They are positive experiences which create friendships which last a life time.

But, press work is not the same as community building and for most activists doesn't have that empowering feel to it.

It can be extremely frustrating. You can do everything right and still get your story bumped by a breaking news event or something as simple as a change in an assignment desk editor.

Press Work is Essential

Newsletters, speaking presentations, videos, web sites are all appropriate means of communication, but they are often self selecting and reach a limited audience. At some point we need to get our message out to a larger audience.

In order to affect public opinion you need to reach a mass audience. The only way to do this is through the mass media..

The reality is that ninety nine percent of the people in any community will not come to hear a speaker or come to a video showing. People get their news of the world through the media.. Either we get our message into the mass media or we reach an extremely small audience.

If your working on national policy issues such as the war in Iraq; changing the Patriot Act; working on passing national health care insurance or local issues such as county wide recycling legislation you need to have public opinion on your side to succeed.

Benefits of Press Work

Besides the obvious benefit of getting our message before a larger audience there is an extremely important additional benefit. Press work forces you to integrate yourself into the community.

There is a tendency with any organization to be insular. Activist organizations are no different. I am always surprised at the amount of material I receive via e-mail that is essentially one progressive activist talking to another progressive activist.

Preaching to the choir will not change the people in the pews. If your position is a minority one you need to be able to reach out to those people who have a different view with language they can hear or symbols they can relate to. The colors red, white and blue and the American flag are symbols most Americans relate to. Yet, I rarely saw them used in my community in demonstrations against the war in Iraq.

In the process of drafting a press release, making a pitch to a talk show producer or writing an op-ed piece, you reflect on what language you need to use to convince that person to accept what your selling to reach a particular audience.

Before I call I think why the issue would be of interest to the readers in Central New York if I'm pitching a local story as editors will often ask why will people want to read about this. I would always emphasize the fact that there were soldiers from a local National Guard unit in Iraq anytime I would try and get coverage on some local activity to stop the war.

Good News

Significant press coverage can be generated on a limited budget. Press releases can be sent across the country and around the world for little or no money by e-mail and fax from your computer. I've been able to generate local, national and international coverage and in the process reach tens of millions of people.

A few years ago, I did the press work for a ten city U.S. speaking tour sponsored by Partners for Peace for three women from the Middle East. Their message reached an estimated audience of over 200 million people between local, national and international coverage.

Hank Strunk, an engineer from Syracuse traveled to Cuba ten years ago with Pastors for Peace. (Make a link to the Pastors for peace Cuba report) A volunteer committee generated over 40 news interviews in a two month period at the cost of a few postage stamps.

The Future for Activists

The amount of news coverage an organization generates is largely a matter of how high a priority an organization places on getting their message before the public.

Generating news coverage while a skill, is not as difficult as many activists believe it is. It does require basic writing and conversational skills. An outgoing personality, a dose of humility and persistence also helps. Many activists have these skills and personality traits.

The more proficient activists become at writing press releases; understanding the importance of timing, news pegs and follow up; developing working relations with reporters and planning their activities with the media in mind the more news coverage they will generate.

The activist community is barely scratching the surface of what is possible in regard to getting their message before the public.

The lessons of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in their strategic use of the media are clear. The ability to generate significant press coverage can change public opinion and consequently public policy.

Representative John lewis, D-Georgia, was a young college student in 1965 when he led more than 600 marchersalong US Route 80 in Selma, Alabama in a peaceful protest for voting rights. Many of the marchers, including Lewis, were beaten by state and local police when they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away.

But the media coverage of "Bloody Sunday" and other Civil Rights demonstrations helped to change public opinion across the country. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the voting rights act. "Without the media," said Lewis, "The civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings."

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