Communicating Regional Sustainability
Presentation on May 24, 2005, at the Second National Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice, and Smart Growth, www.policylink.org, in Philadelphia, Penn.
by David Swanson
June 8, 2005
It is with some hesitation that I speak about communicating ideas on regional equity and smart growth to a gathering of experts on the topic. I am not an expert on regional sustainability, but I would never admit that in front of a television camera! Like anyone else, I know enough that's worth saying, and like anyone who's trained a little in how to talk to broadcast reporters, I know enough to answer a question that I don't know the answer to with an explanation that what I have to say is more important than what was asked. And hopefully I know enough about communications to offer some useful ideas here. I'm not completely ignorant of the issues. When I worked for the community group ACORN, I worked with PolicyLink and others on a couple of related campaigns. One was a campaign that almost passed state legislation in California to require regional tax sharing in the Sacramento region – a system that could have reduced sprawl and traffic, created open space, and developed affordable housing. AB 680, as this bill was known, could have improved livability and sustainability in the entire region, including in the more urban areas that many residents of the suburbs spend some of their time in. The bill would have distributed sales tax revenue to localities on a per-capita basis and based on their affordable housing and land use practices. According to the agenda for this conference, Brian Kettenring, who spearheaded that campaign for ACORN is on a panel in one of the rooms next-door – so you can catch Brian and ask him whether communications was one of the weak links in the chain – certainly there were ways in which it could have been stronger.
I also worked with ACORN and PolicyLink on a campaign that is ongoing in Washington DC – a push for an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which would produce affordable housing by requiring large developers to build a percentage of units to be affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. There are some leaders from that campaign here as well.
I'll offer some brief thoughts on communications, recommend some resources, and suggest some activities to practice. Regional cooperation, I think, is a topic that most people would naturally tend to explain by describing how competition among localities leads to undesirable results. We tend to give some historical context, list all the negative results of the current arrangement, and detail how our rather arcane piece of legislation will work. In doing so, we describe congestion and the ugliness of sprawl, traffic and drive times, the senselessness of building jobs and housing far from each other and from public transit, and so on. Then we have just enough time left before people start to doze off to simply say that our solution will fix all of that stuff.
I'm inclined to think that it would be more effective to talk positively, to simply start out talking about the benefits: shorter drives without traffic, lower mortgage payments, new parks, preserved natural areas, a vibrant downtown. The main reason that I think it might be worth framing things positively is not just to be sunny and happy, but in order to sway opinion in those jurisdictions that can expect to lose revenue under regional tax sharing. The way to win them over is clearly not to blame their local governments or explain how we're going to take powers away from them, but to point out exactly how residents of those jurisdictions will benefit. To the extent that we use local small media, town newspapers, labor union papers, low-power FM, cable access, ethnic media, neighborhood media, church bulletins, posters, flyers, listserves, local websites, our own newsletters, and our allies' newsletters, we can target particular neighborhoods with messages about how a regional plan will benefit them. For metro-wide media outlets, we may want a mix of messages, but probably want to lean toward the messages aimed at those areas that will be labeled losers if the issue gets framed as one of certain jurisdictions taking resources from others. Not only are those our hardest cases to win over, but business interests that align with them are likely to find sympathetic listeners in editors and producers.
I think that the central message of many campaigns, and the title of this conference, is something best aimed at lower income and minority neighborhoods that can expect to gain revenue from regional tax sharing. If regional equity (or wealth equity or racial equity) becomes the focus everywhere, the result can be predictions of which localities will lose out in the short-term taxation calculation, followed by stiff opposition from those areas, and even town governments publicly bribing other towns to join the opposition, and newspapers referring to this strategy with praise as imposing a moral duty on the potential bribee.
Rich white neighborhoods should be hearing about regional sustainability and why the new plan will make their towns more livable, not regional equity and why they need to start paying their fair share. They already believe they pay MORE than their fair share. Everyone always does. Regional sustainability or livability also seems like a better term than "smart growth," since some people don't like growth at all, some people distrust anything that's smart, the accusation that what we now have is dumb growth is polarizing, and nobody is immediately clear what smart growth gives them.
I want to focus most of my suggestions on non-corporate media, that is, not the major paper or pair of papers and not the major networks. One reason for this is that there are other panelists here who can talk better than I can about framing messages for the corporate media. But another is that I find the corporate media – the regional-level media -- to be in generally as bad shape as our systems of development and housing, and subject to the same profit interests. The Nation Magazine on May 23 quoted an activist with the Prometheus Radio Project here in Philly, which helps groups around the country set up low-power FM stations. The guy goes by the name Pete Tridish (as in Petri dish), and he said, with probably only slight exaggeration:
"Every single campaign I had ever worked on – we might've learned how to hold up a sign and got five seconds on the news by shouting something that rhymed, but we could never get taken seriously. The next day [our opponents] would be on MacNeil/Lehrer, and all their policy wonks would say why we were a bunch of idiots. I started to realize that there was a very serious problem of media ownership and control."
From the context of the article, it's clear that Mr. Tridish was not objecting to the semi-public ownership of PBS, but lumping it in with privately owned outlets that promote a corporate agenda.
Framing a message for corporate media outlets can sometimes be a complete waste of time – in cases where you have a story that they will never air or publish. How many articles have you read about labor unions' opposition to the war? What did the corporate news tell you about the removal from millions of workers of the right to time and a half pay for overtime? The AFL-CIO poured a lot of time and money into spinning that story, but it just wasn't going to be spun.
Other times, framing for the corporate media is worthwhile, but the results are still quite limited. The effect of one article in a big paper is nothing like the effect of a storyline that is endlessly repeated and bounced around the media's echo chamber. And the story has to be framed not just for the right audience, but for the editor or producer who acts as the gatekeeper. There are many stories that would persuade a majority of the public but have a hard time getting past editors. Is single-payer health care a good idea or a nutty communist plot? It depends whether you're asking the public or Disney, General Electric, and the other corporations controlling our public discourse.
In framing for corporate media, we have to consider what they respect and how they will do to it what they call "balancing." Often they will not respect an idea from a community group until legislators make a serious push to act on it, and once they have begun to cover it, they will give at least 50 percent of the coverage to those who oppose it, quite regardless of whether that opposition is credible or honest. This means that local media and alternative media – media outlets that are used to build the membership of the campaign more than to influence power brokers – may be the only door open at the beginning. These media outlets can mobilize people to pressure legislators or developers, which in turn can achieve what's needed to break into the bigger media. Smaller media can also have a more direct impact on breaking into corporate media, in that reporters at large papers sometimes read the smaller papers. And if a campaign achieves bad message framing in the corporate media before appealing to the smaller media, it is much harder at that point to get the smaller media to ignore the corporate spin.
By referring to non-corporate media as small, I don't want to be misunderstood. Many small outlets are read and believed by many people better than a corporate paper. And all the small outlets combined are quite large. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 41 percent of Americans sometimes look for news on Google or Yahoo or another search engine, and there are progressive outlets whose articles show up on Google in between Fox and the New York Times.
Of course, colorful demonstrations and civil disobedience can sometimes penetrate the corporate media, including the biggest media of all: television, as can stories of individuals and families affected by the current situation of injustice and bad government. But demonstrations alone often fail to get across the desired message, and profiles of people are usually turned into pure victim stories without any reference to what those people are doing to try to change things. You should negotiate with a reporter to get both parts of a story in or not give them anything.
There are ways to try to work through all of these problems with the corporate media, but another important element of communications is to work around it.
Doing so has many advantages. Small neighborhood and ethnic papers are often so short-staffed and so willing to openly align themselves with you, that they will let you write the articles (as well as op-eds) and take the photos for them. Many will prefer to run an article if you have photos to go with it. So, make sure that you have one or more people on your staff who really like to write, and ideally people on staff who can translate professionally into the languages of any publications you want to contribute to. Contact the translators and interpreters union in DC if you need to hire a translator. You should also contact ethnic publications speaking their languages on the phone. And make sure that you take high-resolution digital photos – good enough for the internet is not good enough for print.
When you do your own writing, you are no longer reduced to sound bites. You can include the full story of what's wrong, what you're doing about it, why people should support you, and what people can do to help. You can write a version of an article for neighborhood papers, another version for African-American papers, another version for Latino papers, and so on – not to mention modified versions for different towns. Ideally, someone local in each area should agree to be the "author", but this is not absolutely required. But a local person should contact the paper and submit the article. And the author should be of the appropriate ethnicity, and you should have a photo and bio of them ready.
Working with reporters for alternative or people's media is similar to writing for alternative publications. Any training you have in speaking to corporate reporters will help, but you'll want to avoid spinning for corporate media. With a corporate reporter, for example, you may or may not want to play along with Bush's pretense that Social Security is broken and focus your remarks on why his proposal would break it further while yours would fix the imaginary problem. With progressive media you don't need to do that, and you shouldn't. This is your opportunity to start getting out the message that Social Security is no more broken than Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction. When you work with democratic media, you have to relearn how to be honest. Right-wing sound bites we need to recognize are often repeated endlessly, not because they're more clever and pithy but because they espouse a corporate viewpoint. In working with progressive media, don't try to make inclusionary zoning sound libertarian. Instead, explain with your own forthright passion why you believe inclusionary zoning is the way to go. Be smart and concise and hit on all the key arguments, but be honest. Reporters and readers will find you more convincing, and they'll even start to care about the issue if they see how much you care about it. If you generate enough excitement and build a big enough movement, the conflict between your side and your opponents may help attract the corporate media – which always loves a fight.
One type of media that it's easy to forget is the trade press. There are relatively small weekly newspapers and magazines that are read by various types of professionals. The American Banker usually welcomed an op-ed from ACORN to give its readers a break from boring banker talk. Of course it had to be effectively addressed to an audience of bankers, both in order to get published and in order to affect the readers, who include legislative staff.
But for the most part, alternative media is addressed to the general public or a segment of it determined by locality, race, ethnicity, or group membership. If you work on a national or large regional campaign you can use resources like the National Newspaper Publishers Association and Hispanic Link to syndicate an article to, respectively, black and Latino newspapers. But you can also syndicate within your organization. That is, you can produce an op-ed or an article and leave a couple of blanks to be filled in with the name of a town or a statistic, or optional paragraphs to be used depending on circumstances, and send it to various staff people and volunteers for them to modify and submit to publications. The same goes for posters and flyers. Especially if you're able to communicate by internet, you can produce a poster or flyer that can be modified and printed out by staff or volunteers in local areas. You can also find volunteers to produce materials for you. You will probably find them, and even some who will produce material whether you want it or not!
In many cities there is a tabloid-sized alternative weekly publication, such as the Philadelphia City Paper. These are free, so they're largely full of advertising and semi-advertising, and they only do a few articles a week, so you may have to wait in line for a while. And sometimes their reporters will be such rebels that they want to attack your opponents and get in a few digs at you as well. Just remember that most reporters are not your allies, and there is no such thing as "off the record." But working with these papers for a good cover story can be quite valuable. Meet with them in the early stages of a campaign. Let them know what's coming.
Some of your allies have substantial publications, in particular labor unions and central labor councils. Get to know them. They can reach a huge audience. The International Labor Communications Association has a website at ILCAonline.org that includes articles from various labor papers, which other labor papers take and print. You can even follow PolicyLink's example, and join the ILCA as an Associate Member and post articles on its website, where they will get a lot of online readers and may get picked up by union papers.
Working with progressive and community and university radio stations can allow you and your members to speak in your own voices and reach targeted audiences. Get to know them. Help them with fund drives. If they have an advisory board drawn from the community, get on it. Think about developing your own show. Or maybe your own low-power FM station.
The same goes for cable access television. Work with existing shows and develop your own.
And, of course, one of the cheapest and easiest ways to reach people is through the internet. I know there's another workshop on it at this conference. Work with local and allied websites and listserves and E-newsletters. Make use of E-activism programs to generate calls and Emails to targets, such as legislators – or, when need be, the media.
You can produce audio and video for the internet. You may have many members who own no computer, but chances are there are a couple of people around who know all the latest techno toys.
You can create a huge and versatile website and Emailing system and have complete and easy control over it by giving $20 per month to People-Link, a unionized non-profit in Brooklyn, the only unionized ISP I know of. Go to People-Link.org.
You should also consider producing your own newsletter, which can be very easily done on a computer using a layout program such as In Design. One of the best books on how to design and layout and edit a newsletter has been made available for free on the internet – the whole book with images and everything. Just go to HowToBook.org. You'll also find there a link to the ILCA website which has numerous other similar resources.
And you should invest, both for PR and for your own media production, in training and keeping track of volunteers or members, as well as staff. The tutorials on the Spin Project website are terrific for PR, and a group called Progressive Communicators Network has a great full day of PR training in DC on June 9th – you can contact Sharon@spiritinaction.net. And Cornell has two days of training in public speaking for union members on May 25-26 in New York City: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Create a database of your members and who is good at what and who has a personal story about what issue. Develop writers, editors, photographers, and videographers, and become the media.
I said I would recommend activities. Here's one, which we can try now if there's time or you can try later: write a message of 2-3 sentences for your campaign to use on the phone to a Washington Post reporter. Now write one to use with the editor of a small ethnic paper in your neighborhood. Make both about the same campaign, but do not make them the same.
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