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.
Next week, we’ll discuss the five essential qualities of a quality communicator.
Bob Ewing is director of communications at the Institute for Justice. This post originally ran in the Institute for Humane Studies Policy Career Guide.
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