OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Issue 2.4 | November 1999

ISSN 1522-211X


Influencing Public Opinion - A Challenge for Activists

By Peter Wirth

As I survey the political and cultural landscape in America, I am struck by how many individuals and organizations do valuable work, but do not make contacting the mass media a priority. Whether it is because they believe that powers beyond their control decide what the mass media will cover, the organizers are afraid their message will be rejected by the public, or they tried and gave up after a few rejections, I do not know.

I do understand how this can happen however. The simplistic formula "corporations control the media" is often stated in activist publications. Public relations work can also be very hard on the ego. If I believe that the media isn't going to cover my story why bother doing the hard work of writing press releases, making pitches to busy reporters, and competing for limited news space. Even if I'm "batting .300," which is respectable, that means seven out of ten reporters, editors, and talk show hosts will turn me down.

I moved in the world of progressive activists for many years. I now work in the world of reporters and mass media as a publicist and media consultant. I know from personal experience that progressive organizations (traditional non-profits, social change organizations, and for-profit businesses) are barely scratching the surface of what is possible in terms of the news coverage we could be generating.

Based on my experience, it is not unrealistic to expect that national organizations should be able to generate syndicated, national coverage and local news coverage in communities where their members live. However, to generate news coverage takes a plan. It will not happen unless it is made a priority and integrated into your organization's activities.

A Successful Speaking Tour

A 10-city United States speaking tour of "Three Women from Jerusalem - Three Women, Three Faiths - Christian, Jewish, Muslim - Jerusalem a Shared City" hosted by Partners for Peace reached an estimated audience of 220 million between local, national, and international news coverage. The tour was extremely successful because we integrated our media strategy, from the very beginning, into all aspects of the tour.

We contacted editors, reporters, and talk show hosts weeks in advance with our "pitch." We worked with the religious media in addition to the secular press. We solicited speaking engagements in churches and synagogues. We learned from their biographies that one of the women attended college in the US. This gave us access to an alumni publication that reached 60,000 professionals with an op-ed piece. We surveyed the local radio and TV talk shows to identify public affairs programming in every city they spoke in.

And, yes we selected some cities because we knew the chances for generating national, syndicated media coverage were better than other cities. For example, many national and syndicated media outlets are located in Washington, DC. We selected DC as a speaking site because we knew that would increase our chances of national and syndicated media coverage.

We did not accept the conventional wisdom of many Middle East activists that it was impossible to get out a progressive message through the mass media.

A Progressive Book Tour

The experience of Paul Loeb, author of Generation at the Crossroads, Nuclear Culture and Hope in Hard Times provides another example of what is possible when a media strategy is integrated into the marketing of a book. In Dallas/Forth Worth, Texas he was able to arrange coverage on five TV stations and 14 radio stations including the main AM talk stations, a major NPR outlet, and fundamentalist religious shows. In the process, his ideas reached people who would never purchase his book.

If we want our views to be heard by the main stream culture we need to reach people in their homes across the political spectrum. Foundations and think tanks with a conservative agenda realize this, which is one reason why they make using the media a high priority. To change public opinion we must reach the public.

The Heritage Foundation Media Machine

Normon Solomon a syndicated columnist wrote in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that the Heritage Foundation is the most widely cited think tank in the US. Appearing frequently on television and radio, Heritage personnel also generate a nonstop flow of op-ed pieces for newspapers. At the same time, Heritage produces a blizzard of press releases, position papers, news conferences, and seminars aired on C-Span. For good measure, Heritage headquarters has a radio studio that serves as a convenient broadcast facility for talk show hosts who want to beam their programs home from Washington.

The Heritage Foundation understands that to affect public policy you need to affect public opinion. Therefore, it allocates significant resources to achieve that goal.

A Reporter's Perspective on the Successful Tactics of the Heritage Foundation

In a Letter to the Editor in the February 23, 1998 issue of The Nation, John Cheves, a reporter from Lexington, KY, writes:

James Ridgeway has discovered one of the "Republican right's" most effective methods of influencing American thought. Its organizations, like the Heritage Foundation, are in constant contact with hundreds of daily newspapers and talk radio shows that reach low and middle income people ("Heritage on the Hill," Dec. 22). Liberal groups seem content to fax press releases to Mother Jones and Utne Reader.

As a reporter for mid-sized newspapers across the South, I've tried to balance my news stories with quotes and ideas from the National Organization for Women (NOW), the NAACP, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Amnesty International, and labor unions. A woman at NOW told me that to conserve its resources, it deals only with media powerhouses like the New York Times.

Heritage Foundation analysts return my calls within 30 minutes, talk for as long as I want, fax me their data-filled reports, and would probably drive all the way from Washington to bring me a cup of coffee. Guess whose philosophies dominate the newspapers most Americans read.

A reality of the news world is deadlines. At times reporters need to go "with what they have." If a press release is in a reporters hands, the chances of getting a message out are increased.

Progressive Organizations

While most organizations do not have anywhere near the resources of the Heritage Foundation, significant news coverage can be generated with a few phone calls and postage stamps. Perhaps, for most groups, it is more a question of priorities and attitude than a lack of resources.

Holly Sklar, a widely published op-ed writer stated in the winter 1998 issue of the National Network of Grantmakers that "the mass media is biased but not as biased or closed as many progressives think. Indeed, the exaggerated image of a monolithic mass media common among many progressives leads to a self-defeating form of self censorship. Progressives too often stifle themselves with inadequate media work and low expectations."

In my experience, after a few decades of work with progressive organizations, I've observed a "mindset" among many activists that the mass media is off limits, regardless of the issue.

A Challenge

The activist community needs to be challenged by the example of people like Nelson Mandela, who in 1998, visited every newspaper editor in South Africa - even those who did not support him.

The mass media in the United States is a complex institution with competing interests staffed by hundreds of thousands of individuals. Ultimately, we deal with an individual reporter, editor, or talk show host who will make a decision on our news story.

We need to establish professional working relationships with reporters. We need to sharpen our skills of writing an interesting press release that is timely with a good "news peg."

We need to be persistent but also accept a "no" graciously. We need to think long term and not expect immediate results. Even a rejected press release can be the beginning of a productive relationship with a reporter. But perhaps most of all, we need to understand that if we want to affect public policy we need to affect public opinion. To affect public opinion we need to use the mass media to reach out to the entire community that will either embrace or reject our message.

Peter Wirth is the founder of GW Associates, a progressive public relations company. He has been involved in a variety of social justice issues for 25 years.

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.