Who said anything about qualifications?
I never thought I’d be writing a piece on media and messaging. I’m a government major at the University of Maryland going into my final semester as an undergraduate. I’m looking to further my education with a masters in public policy with a specialization in environmental policy. In the student activist group UMD for Clean Energy that I’ve been involved in since the spring semester of 2007, I’ve been the boots on the ground guy getting petition signatures and power vote pledges, the Political Liaison who handled the policy aspects of the campaign like organizing lobby meetings, and last fall I had my first stint as the Campaign Director for the group. Despite my responsibility never being media and messaging, it’s in this area that I feel I’ve learned some of the most valuable organizing lessons.
When applied to our group’s efforts last semester, our new approach to media became one of the most powerful engines for our local campaign on making green issues front and center in our College Park City Council elections, and complimented all of the other aspects of our campaign beautifully. At the end of the semester, core members of UMD for Clean Energy tried to put our finger on how and why media had been invaluable to our campaign, but usually our guesses didn’t go beyond “wow”. This is my imperfect yet necessary attempt to explain what happened, with the hope that other groups can gain from it, and at least so I can convey how important this aspect of the youth climate movement is. By the way, I’ve committed the cardinal sin of making this a longggg post, but it’s worth it so please read.
“This was a lot more efficient than knocking on 20,000 doors”
Taking a step back, my introduction to media came in the spring of 2008. I wrote a guest column titled “Gravity is a Hoax” in our school/city newspaper, the Diamondback. The satirical column imitated global warming deniers, and got quite a reaction in comments and e-mails. The Diamondback staff took notice and one sample column later, I was a hired opinion columnist. Since then, I’ve written a bi-weekly, sometimes weekly opinion column, which 95% of the time has focused on environmental issues. Writing opinion columns was enlightening in that I realized with a readership of nearly 20,000, I could consistently get a story, argument, or message out to a lot of people with only 2-3 hours work. This was a lot more efficient than knocking on 20,000 doors(not to mention more fun than canvassing!). One thing I was good at that made writing op-eds work well for me was in crafting my message in the column. At the start, a lot of my columns were rough around the edges because of my inexperience, but as time has passed by, I’ve become a natural at taking complex and convoluted arguments/issues and explaining them in 550 words to a college audience.
A media plan without new media is half a plan
Then came the blog in August of 2008. I wish I could say I made this as a tactical move or with some specific purpose, but I was honestly just sitting around my computer one night a couple weeks before the start of school, and made a blog out of boredom. Being ever so serious, I named it after a nickname soccer teammates gave me many years ago “The Dernogalizer”. At first, it was just an outlet to write my thoughts about environmental/energy issues, but readership has grown from 5-10 people a day to regularly topping 200 views a day, along with averaging hundreds more during more intense periods such as the house climate bill debate, and the Copenhagen climate conference. Through cross-posting at Itsgettinghotinhere, the primary new media outlet for the youth climate movement, as well as reading and interacting with other climate bloggers on the web, I’ve gained a whole new outlook on online media. I’ve seen bloggers drive stories hidden away from the public eye, and push them out into the mainstream news cycle. I’ve seen the terms of the debate on issues set by bloggers on the left and the right. The emerging reality we must face is that as newspapers cut their staffs, and some go out of business, a lot of news stories are going to be found online, defined by the bloggers. Media outlets will rely more and more on the blogs as leads for stories that they no longer have the resources to pursue on their own. Therefore, any media and messaging game plan is going to have to rely more and more on online media outlets and blogs. Simply sending out a press release to newspapers won’t cut it.
“a new, heightened focus”
When I became the campaign director of UMD for Clean Energy, at the very top of my list for things I wanted us to do differently was media. In the past, myself and others in our group felt we had treated media as shooting off a press release to a couple papers and calling it a day. Even I had viewed media up to that point as extra credit to our actual organizing efforts. Yeah, it would be nice to focus more time on media, but we were always busy doing more important things like rallies, petition signatures, and lobbying politicians. This isn’t a knock on previous student leaders in our group whose job was media, it was just that the group as a whole didn’t understand the value, and didn’t put the necessary time, resources, and thought into it. Often when we got media in the past, most of the group including myself was oblivious to it. My outlook gradually changed as I worked for the Diamondback and interacted with online blogs and bloggers. It came to a full swing during the summer climate bill debate, where I saw how important the media portrayal of an issue was, where environmentalists completely screwed up Waxman-Markey as far as messaging goes. So when I met with our newly elected media director Kenny Frankel over the summer, I told him my goal was for us to have a new heightened focus on the responsibilities of his position, and make it an integral part of the group’s efforts, rather than a sideshow.
Who said anything about qualifications?
The interesting thing about Kenny is he, like me, has absolutely no journalism experience. He wanted to run for a leadership position in the group, and we were lacking someone willing to do media director, so I suggested he run for it. Before the start of the semester, we had to google how to write a press release, and the difference between a press release and a press advisory. More on why this matters at the end.
Having a website, for real
Previously, we had never bothered with having a well kept website. We had one in 2007, but it was never used. We also had a Google-site for a semester, but didn’t add much of anything to it. One of the main projects for Kenny, along with the help of our group’s Organizational Director(and co-president) Laura Calabrese was to have a well kept website. So we made a new one, which despite its simplicity has gotten many compliments. We had cool stuff such as picture slideshow of our efforts and links to informational sites, along with the necessary information for our group’s efforts(like media hits) and our group leader’s contact info and bio’s. We put this website on every single flyer for every single event we did. It was at the bottom of every one of our press releases as a source for more information. It was at the bottom of every platform and FAQ for our campaign we handed out. Oftentimes before we met with a candidate for the city council, they would remark they checked out our group’s website ahead of time for information, and we were also e-mailed by interested students, non-profits, and media outlets throughout the semester. Our website traffic grew gradually over the course of the 2-month campaign. I’ll talk about what it was before the election later.
What’s the Campaign?
The premise behind our campaign was pretty simple. Traditionally in our College Park City Council elections, it only took a couple hundred votes to elect a candidate to the city council, and less than a thousand to elect the Mayor. Students hadn’t been mobilized to vote locally in a long time, and in 2007 something like 7 students voted from the dorms. UMD for Clean Energy decided we would draft a platform on a host of energy, development, transportation, and environmental issues, and meet with every single candidate for the council(this ended up being 16!) about them. We would then endorse what we felt were the candidates that would champion our issues, and mobilize students on a scale no one had before to vote for the greenest candidates. Basically, almost 100% of the student voters would be voting with the environment as the #1 issue. We decided our efforts would culminate on election day with a green march from the center of our campus to city hall to vote. We called the campaign “Green for College Park”. Classes started at the end of August, and the election was on November 3rd, so we had about 2 months to organize.
Framing the Campaign
The reason I keep following the word media with messaging is that every campaign, rally, or piece of legislation needs a winning message behind it. While there’s no applicable blueprint for everything, for us the message needed to be concise, understandable, resonate with the average citizen, opportunistic, and repeated over and over and over again. Here was what we had at the top of our platform
“This past spring, Maryland passed a major global warming bill, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act. The investment in energy efficiency, transportation, and clean energy from this bill can create 100,000 jobs for the state by 2015. The question is where are those jobs and that investment going to fall? We think the investment is going to go to the counties and cities that are on the forefront of clean energy policy. Unfortunately, right now Prince George’s County and College Park are not leading. We want College Park to set the gold standard for the county and other municipalities within it. This is College Park’s opportunity to be a leader in the state of Maryland.”
This wasn’t just limited to being front and center in every press release, blog post, and phone call we made. Every time we met with a politician, this is how we led into the conversation. Whenever we reached out to a student group on campus, this is how it began. When we talked to activists off-campus, this was what we said first. We probably distributed several hundred platform sheets with FAQ’s on the back that had this at the top with every conversation we had with anyone. I would say the above was one half of our message. The other half has already been described above, which was talking about our green march and how just a handful of students could decide the outcome of the election. We wanted people to feel like their vote and involvement could make the difference. I call it the “election dynamics”. I would say the message at the top of the platform and the one about election dynamics were the two we repeated everywhere we went, to everyone we talked to. One other thing I’d like to note is our use of superlatives. We talked about being the gold standard and a leader in the area. I think these worked well, and I would just say that messages get a lot more traction when underlined with ambition.
Our Demands: Vague Ideas with a bottom line front and center
An important messaging aspect of the campaign, which also helped a lot with the media, was how we wrote our platform. Rather than try to explain to everyone a laundry list of demands, or get bogged down in the policy specifics of them, we settled for a middle ground. We had our ideas on our platform, and then we elevated what we thought was the best idea to the very top, and called it our bottom line. This was the energy efficiency loan fund, which you can read more about here, or from our platform. It was the first demand everyone saw, and the only one we went into specifics with in press releases and outreach to others. Aside from talking about the merits of our idea, our message to everyone, especially the candidates was this: “you don’t need to be perfect on every issue on our platform, but you have to support our loan fund idea. If you do not support establishing an energy efficiency loan fund, we cannot endorse you no matter what”. As our campaign progressed, this was an issue that candidates started talking about. Some of them incorporated it into their platforms, and talked about it when they went door to door. Midway through September, the City Council had a work session on the loan fund, and UMD for Clean Energy was called up to the table to discuss. We invited the city councilman championing the loan fund to one of our meetings to talk about it, giving him, us, and our idea good publicity. The City Council had another work session. When we found out state law didn’t permit it, the existing council swiftly elevated it to being one of their top 3 legislative asks for our state legislators to get done in the next general assembly session. There is legislation in the pipeline to be considered by our state’s General Assembly this year which would clear a path for any municipality in the state that wants to set up an energy efficiency loan fund. The line in the sand approach seems to simplify things for everyone paying attention. Just look at healthcare and the public option. Now, perhaps the public option was a poor line to draw, I won’t go there, but what is our line in the sand for climate legislation? Just a thought.
Hitting the ground running
A goal we had was to hit the ground running with the media by pursuing as many outlets as possible. One thing we realized early on was that it was challenging to get coverage for a campaign where nothing had happened yet. Although we were having success on Federal climate legislation by getting into The Gazette, The Washington Post, and The Diamondback, the coverage of our local effort was lacking. Rather than settling for bumping our heads against the wall with Green for College Park media, we turned to online media. This is where I’m grateful that I had an understanding from my own blogging which sites Kenny should pursue. In our blitz, we got co-authored guest posts in Maryland Politics Blog (#1 progressive blog in MD), Rethink College Park (most popular College Park blog), interviewed on Just Up the Pike (popular Montgomery County blog), and Climate Progress(you all know that one!). I also cross-posted our press release from my blog into Itsgettinghotinhere, the main blog for the youth climate movement. The Washington Post’s blog also picked us up from all the noise, as did Greater Greater Washington. Other blogs also linked to the blogs above. We continued the cycle by putting our media on our website and facebook, and the website was linked in all of these blog posts. Thank you new media!
This avalanche of new media brought us attention in College Park, which coupled with our outreach and lobbying efforts started creating a juggernaut as far as name recognition went. I think it also gave Kenny the experience to go after the media aggressively from there on without needing much help from me for the rest of the semester. We linked most of the media hits we got on our website, but probably missed a few. Still, in case you want your jaw to drop, check out our fall 2009 media. Probably the greatest accomplishment was Kenny following up hard on a connection to get us a 10-15 minute interview on the radio station WPGC 95.5 with Guy Lambert’s “Community Focus” program. WPGC is one of the most listened to stations in the DC/Prince Georges County area, predominately by African Americans. We were in the university/city newspaper The Diamondback again, and again, and again, and many more times, largely because Kenny wouldn’t stop calling them until they covered us for a story.
When the newspaper’s staff editorial one day was expressing dissatisfaction that students were not adequately involved in the city elections, Kenny fired back in a guest column highlighting UMD for Clean Energy’s efforts and the need for a loan fund. He worked with a member of our group to write a guest column on taking local environmental action, mentioning the Green for College Park Campaign. He got a blog going on our website where members could make guest posts, and we included the guest posts we got on our group’s weekly message to our membership list-serve. A few journalism students sought us out and did their class projects on our efforts. When it was time to make our endorsements, our political liaison Hilary Staver took advantage of the relationship we had with the Diamondback staff to announce our picks in an op-ed, and we publicized them on our website, along with their positions on issues. Previews, interviews, and information on our March to the Vote for election day and the Green for College Park campaign were written about by Diamondback reporters three times in a 2 day span. Here’s one. Climate Wire interviewed and shadowed us for part of October, and said we’ll be mentioned in an article on the youth movement in January. In two months time, the UMD for Clean Energy website went from getting no traffic to hundreds of visits a day. I calculated that up until election day, UMD for Clean Energy averaged a media hit once every 2.3 days.
I could go on with examples before the march, the point is the media coverage kept on coming from all sorts of places, and I think it was a product of our strong early push, Kenny’s extremely hard work, a good message, and a website that worked. The candidates and the community took notice. In September we had trouble reaching some candidates, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to meet with a bunch. As the media and campaign picked up, people started getting the impression we were for real. Combined with our political liaison’s relentless outreach, we got meetings with several candidates in the last week before our endorsements deadline. We ended up talking to all of them. One College Park resident who disagreed with one of our endorsements printed 300 fliers opposing the candidate and distributed them a few days before the election, out of concern we could put them in office. Without going into names, while the reaction from the candidates and community were overall positive, in the final days there were at least a couple untrue rumors spread between local politicians which attempted to undermine the legitimacy of our group’s endorsements by accusing us of playing favorites for reasons other than environmental. The point is, we were taken very seriously by the end, and media played a huge role.
The aftermath of a successful rally and march, and the election of at least 5 environmental champions(including the Mayor) to the City Council out of 9 seats makes us optimistic that next semester there will be a strong environmental agenda. Several of the elected council members talked on election night of prioritizing environmental issues, and gave shout outs to UMD for Clean Energy. Historically, there had been tensions between student involvement in city politics and the council, so I saw it as a testament to our positive media coverage and strong messaging that we were well received. I myself was called up to speak while they were counting the votes. But turning to the media, I think the great work by Kenny and our good message led to our post-rally coverage being completely positive. It was so new, because usually when the media covers environmental issues and climate change, they screw up the facts, quote skeptics and doubters, or completely miss the story. We got great coverage by the Diamondback the day after, and in semesters past they often screwed up environmental news stories. NPR caught us. The staff editorial in the Diamondback 2 days later praised us as creating a blueprint for student involvement in local elections, and admitted they were wrong when they criticized students in September. It felt like I had written it, even though I hadn’t. Not too much later, UMD for Clean Energy made a presentation to the City Council on tax breaks for green businesses, and we were once again covered positively by the Diamondback, and found ourselves in The Washington Post soon after. The final icing on the cake for the semester was the new Mayor announcing environmental initiatives as one of his priorities for his term, and the Diamondback staff editorial saying “ The city council owes it to voters to look carefully at environmental issues and to lobby for improvements on a larger stage. Much of the student voting constituency this year consisted of environmentally-conscious students led by the group UMD for Clean Energy.”
The Multiplier Effect
What I learned last semester above all is how media work can make a good campaign great. I have a hard time imagining what our efforts would have looked like, and how they would’ve come across if we had not aggressively pursued the media, and relentlessly pushed our message. The great media work by Kenny and our group as a whole amplified every other aspect of our campaign. Grassroots, lobbying, membership, and motivation from seeing your efforts in a positive light in the news. It was all so much stronger because of the media. By now, I’ve had students, residents, and people from organizations tell me they had followed UMD for Clean Energy’s efforts in the news, and were impressed with them.
Oftentimes when we talk about numbers in the climate movement, we talk about the number of boots on the ground. That matters a lot. But what I learned is that great media coverage makes the perception of the size and strength of the movement feel much larger. I would take a rally on the steps of the Capitol with 1,000 people and great media coverage over a rally with 10,000 people and poor to no media coverage. 1,000 with great media coverage feels like 10,000 to politicians, because there are several times the number of people who were at the rally reading about it and reading its message. That’s the multiplier effect. We can get the youth climate movement’s message and story out to several times the number we can power vote pledge and canvass. You can bet that the global warming delay and denial machine has made a mastery of working the media to generate doubt and mistrust over the science of global warming and its solutions. They don’t have the grassroots, but they dominate the media on our issues, and its tough to overcome.
If we’re going to grow this movement and win this fight, we need to take advantage of our technological know-how and use every form of media to our benefit, from the local newspaper to Twitter. I know at UMD for Clean Energy, we still have a lot to learn and improve upon. One of the most important lessons, which I mentioned earlier is that our greatest semester of media came from a media director who had absolutely no media experience, but worked real hard. I had no formal experience when I started writing op-eds and blog posts. Any one of us can do this. What it’s going to take is effort, and a renewed focus from all of us on how much attention is being paid to the media and messaging aspects of our campaigns. If we can get this right in our communities and on the national stage, there is no stopping us.
Cross-posted at: The Dernogalizer