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In 1996, a little-known lawsuit was working its way through the New Jersey courts. It caught the attention of a relatively new libertarian public interest law firm called the Institute for Justice. The case dealt with a complex legal concept virtually unknown to the general public: eminent domain.
The law firm got involved in the case and began a national public relations campaign. Soon it was making headlines in media outlets all across the country. The New York Times, The Economist, 20/20 and countless others were generating widespread public outrage by reporting on the New Jersey case involving an elderly grandmother who was in danger of having her house bulldozed so that Donald Trump could expand his limousine parking lot.
The Institute for Justice won the case, and over the next decade turned eminent domain into one of the hottest topics in the court of public opinion. Less than ten years after the victory in New Jersey, IJ found itself arguing a similar case before the U.S. Supreme Court, called Kelo v. City of New London.
This time the court ruled against the property owners, but the decision sparked nationwide outrage that ushered in a new era of protection for property rights. Less than three years after the disastrous Supreme Court ruling in Kelo, 43 states changed their laws to provide greater protection to private property rights.
Kelo became a textbook example of the important role a communications team plays within an organization. IJ lost the battle—the lawsuit—but thanks to power of the court of public opinion, they ended up in large part winning the war, encouraging nationwide eminent domain reform.
Simply put, the media can do a tremendous job of helping an organization achieve success. Support from the court of public opinion is often essential in order to win a fight or advance a cause. What good is a white paper if nobody reads it? A video if nobody sees it? What will be the result of a bad law if nobody knows to stop it?
Abe Lincoln once said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Public relations is especially important for libertarian groups that are likely dealing with complex concepts or points of view that may not be initially accepted by a majority of the public.
Working on the media team, you define and maintain the terms of debate. You explain complex ideas in a way that people can understand them. For example, eminent domain is not about some weird-sounding technical legal term, it’s about a little old lady and the fact that her home shouldn’t be bulldozed to build a bigger parking lot for Donald Trump.
A communicator is an expert at networking. You get to know key journalists, reporters, bloggers, and producers. You build relationships with them. In many instances, you become friends. You’ll likely travel to various conferences attended by the media to network, build relationships, and promote your organization.
The media allows you to find common allies. You may write a joint press release or issue a joint op-ed with a person or organization that you never imagined you’d work with. You’ll be on the lookout for non-traditional alliances, working together to advance a common goal.
You will create effective spokespeople. Every organization needs talented, passionate, and trained advocates. Many of the people working to advance liberty—be they scholars, lawyers, bloggers, researchers, activists, etc.—are initially uncomfortable working with the press. In fact, media relations is inherently scary. Mother Teresa once said that “facing the press is more difficult than bathing a leper.” She captures a common sentiment. Media relations is a learned skill. It is unnatural to interact with the press, so spokespeople must prepare. With your counsel, spokespeople can transform from terrified and terrible into confident and successful.
You will help train people outside of your organization as well. There are grassroots activists all across the country that you can empower. Depending on your organization and mission, you may help a poor mother before she walks the halls of Congress to demand the freedom to send her children to the school of her choice. You may work with college students to effectively advance a libertarian goal on campus. You may help lead a rally of taxi drivers that demand market reforms, getting TV cameras and reporters to their event, and also preparing them to explain their story in a way that resonates.
On the media team, you hold the bad guys accountable. Bureaucrats, politicians, and big-government special interest groups are often arrogant and unapologetic for their actions. By their very nature, they often work to increase their power at the expense of the little guy. But a funny thing happens when you shine the media spotlight on them. When the community discovers what the local bureaucrat is up to, when the bad guy gets singled out and exposed, he often folds. You will always have a deep sense of satisfaction—and get a big smile on your face—every time you expose a bad guy and force him to change his tune.
There are five qualities that are essential to being an effective communicator.
First and foremost, you have to be accurate. You must always be truthful and build a reputation with the media as someone they can trust. The quality of the information you provide can never be compromised, because reporters will take the information you give them and make it their own.
Reporters, journalists, producers, and bloggers often work under intense pressure and on difficult deadlines. They need information by a certain time or it may no longer be useful to them. You must be sensitive to the deadline pressures they face and do everything you can to work with them in a timely fashion. The best way to get ahead of a story is to set the terms of debate from the very beginning. Get out in front of a story and define it on your terms. When possible, prepare your statements and even press releases, op-eds, videos, white papers, or other materials in advance.
Be a happy warrior. Public policy organizations of all types are often found complaining about something. Don’t join them. Dale Carnegie once wrote that “any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do.” You will be much more successful and respected if you remain optimistic and confident. Develop a reputation of being someone who, regardless of his situation, is always positive and a pleasure to work with.
Be thorough. Understand your issues better than anyone else, especially the people that you’re up against. Be prepared by reading, reviewing, and preparing all necessary materials in advance. Your goal is to provide every reporter with enough information to write a complete story. Anticipate their questions and their desires.
Be honest and open. Do not hide information or manipulate the truth. And don’t work for an organization that does. Always be honest and see that your mission and objectives are transparent. In 1934, the NAACP made it clear in their annual report that they were engaging in a long-term plan to end segregation in public schools. And that a fundamental part of their campaign was to set the terms of debate and win over public opinion. It was quite a lofty goal for the 1930s. And yet they were honest and open—and wildly successful. It took 20 years, but in 1954 they successfully turned their dream into a reality.
In a nutshell, you must be accurate, timely, positive, thorough, and honest. No exceptions.
The liberty movement needs effective communicators. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.”
Become a communications expert and you will set the terms of debate that sway public opinion and effectively advance liberty. You can, in a very real sense, change the world.
As the Institute for Justice’s Director of Communications, Bob Ewing works on IJ’s award-winning media team to make the case for economic liberty, free speech, private property rights and school choice in the court of public opinion.
Bob has secured news coverage in outlets nationwide, including Air America, All Things Considered, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Forbes, Fortune Small Business, Hannity & Colmes, Marketplace, Marginal Revolution, MSNBC, National Public Radio, National Law Journal, National Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Reason Magazine, The Volokh Conspiracy, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, US News & World Report and USA Today.
His writings have been published by outlets including the Albuquerque Tribune, Baltimore Examiner, BigGovernment.com, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Daily Caller, Fee.org and The Freeman.
He also provides media training for school choice parents and students, helping them learn how to make their voices heard. As part of research into a potential economic liberty case, Bob successfully obtained an occupational license in August 2006 from the City of Baltimore. For one year he was authorized to play a Native American flute as a government-approved street entertainer – though only in select locations and at certain times.
Bob joined the Institute for Justice in August 2005 from the Foundation for Economic Education, where he worked as the Leonard E. Read Research Fellow. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Business Economics with a minor in Business Law from the University of Toledo. He lives in Arlington, Va., and enjoys spending his free time running barefoot and rock climbing in West Virginia.
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