Using media advocacy to engage elected officials

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The inauguration of Donald J. Trump was a pivotal moment for the Public Health Justice Collective (PHJC), a volunteer-run group of public health professionals, students and advocates in the San Francisco Bay Area who use a public health lens to support progressive social movements. As the Trump Administration moved rapidly to undercut a wide array of health, environmental and social programs, participation in the group surged. Yet despite its growing membership, many in PHJC reported feeling overwhelmed and powerless in the face of a growing tide of white supremacist, xenophobic and misogynist policies and rhetoric that would undermine hard-fought public health and social justice wins that the group was actively working to protect, including women's access to reproductive health care.

This is the story of how PHJC — originally known as Occupy Public Health because of its origins in the Occupy movement of the early 2010s — overcame that overwhelm and organized an effective media advocacy campaign to elevate their issue, gain access to elected officials, and build power.

PHJC members knew that taking urgent action would be critical and quickly identified a top priority: opposing the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court of the United States.

According to Amber Piatt, an organizer with PHJC, the group focused on Gorsuch for two reasons: "First and foremost, Supreme Court appointments have long-standing and far-reaching consequences on all the issues we care about — from environmental regulations to abortion access," she said. "We were taking cues from groups like the Alliance for Justice and the Leadership Conference who shared why Gorsuch is such a grave threat to civil rights, women's rights and workers' rights."

"Second," Piatt continued, "we did our research on the process to get a Supreme Court Justice confirmed and knew that we were at a crucial intervention point where California voters specifically had power. California Senator Dianne Feinstein was the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which gave her authority over the cross-examination process that happens before the Senate could vote to confirm him. As California voters, we had the responsibility to push our Senator in the right direction."

Although Gorsuch has since been confirmed, PHJC's campaign offers several key insights that advocates can apply to future public health and social justice efforts.

Planning the action

Developing clarity and accountability around goals — who needs to do what by when — is key to successful media advocacy. For PHJC, the demand was clear: that Senator Feinstein strongly question Judge Gorsuch and lead a filibuster if necessary to block his nomination.

Once the group established this goal, there were several additional strategic questions that had to be considered. One of these was whether media attention would help or hinder the cause.

"The unfortunate reality is that there are two effective ways to pressure most elected officials: to threaten to cease giving financially to their campaigns and/or to threaten implicitly or explicitly to not vote for them," Piatt said. "Because we were unsure if Senator Feinstein would run for office again, we could not rely on those pressure points."

PHJC ultimately decided to involve the media for three reasons. First, members of PHJC had been unable to communicate with Senator Feinstein's staff because their phone lines were consistently busy. They were frustrated that their voices would not be heard on a crucial issue and felt that using the media could be an effective means of breaking through the impasse. Second was the question of Senator Feinstein's own comments in the media: the Senate vote on whether to nominate Gorsuch was quickly approaching, and her only publicly available statements suggested she may favor his nomination. The group urgently wanted to shine a light on his conservative track record, including his ruling in the original Hobby Lobby case that functionally declared corporations people who can claim religious rights. Finally, PHJC saw media coverage as a way deliver the message that Judge Gorsuch's stances were dangerous to public health to a broader audience. The group hoped that a news story might mobilize other concerned constituents to contact Senator Feinstein's office.

Once the decision to use the media was made, the next question was how to garner media attention and — by extension — catch the attention of Senator Feinstein's office.

"We decided to invoke a conversation about her legacy and reputation," Piatt said. "Senator Feinstein is the oldest currently serving United States Senator. She has been the first woman to hold many political posts over the years, but we wanted to remind her that her story is not finished."

book cover of Dianne Feinstein's LegacyTo do so, the group developed a creative visual: a super-sized children's book titled "Dianne Feinstein's Legacy!" The book provided a biographical sketch of Senator Feinstein as a pioneering woman who finds herself at a crossroads. The last page of the book was left blank to signal that the final chapter of her career — including the Gorsuch decision — was not yet written.

"This idea around legacy boiled down to one essential question to Senator Feinstein," Piatt said: "When young girls learn about you, do you want them to learn that you stood up for their rights or that you sold out?"

To further heighten newsworthiness, the group decided to hold its action on March 8, International Women's day. On this day, advocates across the world hold marches and demonstrations to raise issues of concern to women globally. PHJC highlighted both these newsworthy elements — an important awareness day and a compelling visual — in its media advisory.

In the days leading up to the action, the group circulated its media advisory widely among local print and TV stations, including Chinese- and Spanish-language news stations that accept materials in English. If a member knew a reporter, they contacted the reporter directly; otherwise, they submitted their media advisory through the outlet's website. In addition, they collaboratively developed talking points.

PHJC publicized the event on its listserv and on social media, which was an effective means of engaging members from outside the core group of meeting participants. On the day of the event, a group of 10 activists showed up to take part. Some of these participants were not regular attendees but came out to support the event.

Day of the action

On International Women's Day, the group convened in front of Sen. Feinstein's San Francisco office. A reporter and cameraperson from KTVU, one of the local English-language news stations to which the group had sent its media advisory, were present approximately 30 minutes prior to the start of the action. One of the PHJC organizers immediately greeted the reporter, provided her with a copy of the group's media advisory and a fact sheet, and then answered her questions about the group's motive for organizing the event. Having carefully prepared and rehearsed talking points prior to the event, the interviewee delivered clear, concise, action-oriented messages during the interview that increased the odds of being accurately quoted.

Shortly before the event's scheduled 10:30 a.m. start time, one of Sen. Feinstein's staff members emerged from the office building, visibly upset to find a camera crew and group of activists outside the office. He expressed displeasure that PHJC had opted to involve the media rather than meet with him directly and stated that he and his staff are readily available to meet with constituents. PHJC seized on this as an opportunity to schedule a meeting, having finally broken through the gridlock. They exchanged business cards with the staff member and agreed to follow up. However, when the staff member suggested that such an in-person meeting replace their public action, PHJC held firm to their original plan.

"The organizers with the PHJC had had many conversations about goals, so we were clear that we wanted to engage with [Feinstein's] office in both public and private capacities if possible," Piatt said. "We also knew that all our goals could not be accomplished solely through an in-person meeting, given our desire for wider public engagement, but could possibly be done solely through the public media event. We did not get distracted by the staff person's offer and held to our group's goals, which ultimately paid off."

As the KTVU camera rolled, members of PHJC read the children's book aloud to Sen. Feinstein's staff member and to curious passersby. A segment of the reading appeared in a news story on the KTVU website later that evening, along with an interview with Piatt. The interview, book reading, fact sheet and media release all emphasized the same key point: that Judge Gorsuch represented a threat to women's health and rights (in addition to a host of other public health issues), and that Sen. Feinstein must act decisively to curb his nomination.

The KTVU segment accurately captured PHJC's desired framing. The news anchor introduced the segment as anticipated: by focusing on the children's book and saying that it portrayed Senator Feinstein as "a strong female leader whose story has an unfinished ending." The segment also included a portion of the interview with Piatt saying, "We're here today to ask Senator Feinstein to stand up for women on International Women's Day and lead a really strong cross-examination of Neil Gorsuch and his record during Senate confirmation hearings and also to support the filibuster against his confirmation vote." This segment can be viewed on the KTVU website (the PHJC action is featured at 01:26).

Next steps

After the action, the group met to discuss its next steps to amplify the message about Sen. Feinstein's legacy. They decided to focus on: 1) reusing the visuals and news story to spur further actions related to the Supreme Court nomination; and 2) developing a strategy for how to make the best use of their upcoming meeting with Sen. Feinstein's staff.

Because the children's book itself was such a compelling visual, they distributed PDF versions of it widely on various listservs and Facebook, along with an email encouraging people to maintain pressure on Sen. Feinstein. The follow-up email provided talking points and her contact information and suggested that supporters write Facebook and Twitter posts using the hashtag #WhatsYourLegacyFeinstein.

The group also promptly scheduled a follow-up meeting with Sen. Feinstein's staff member.

By the time of the meeting (roughly one month after the action took place), the Republican-controlled Senate had deployed the so-called "nuclear-option" of changing Senate rules such that Judge Gorsuch could be approved by a simple majority vote. Sen. Feinstein, as hoped, was an outspoken critic both of Gorsuch and the precedent-breaking tactics by which he was approved. Thus, the first agenda item of the meeting was to thank her office for taking a stand against Gorsuch, in spite of the unfavorable outcome.

After starting the meeting with a "thank you," the group then pivoted to address its other vital public health concerns. PHJC members expressed that they hoped and expected Sen. Feinstein to take a strong stand to support immigrants' rights, protect the environment, sustain funding for vital health and social programs, and support alternatives to war.

In addition to specific issues, PHJC stressed how urgent and severe the current threats to public health are under the Trump administration, using their own stories from their work and lives. They encouraged Sen. Feinstein's office not just to conduct business as usual, but to enact a vision for a just and healthy future for all people and to actively work toward that vision. According to Piatt, the staff members with whom they met said they would relay the group's concerns to the senator and expressed interest in holding follow-up meetings to further discuss the public health implications of federal policies.

Thus, while PHJC's goals had changed between the time the media action was initially conceived and when the in-person meeting occurred, both these events allowed the group to share its public health perspective with one of the most influential members of the United States Senate. The pressure tactic of using the media created an opportunity for future constructive communication between PHJC and Sen. Feinstein's office. While PHJC moved quickly to plan both the action and the meeting, they were able to clearly define their overall strategy and the values behind it, which allowed them to speak constructively in the meeting, while staying centered on the grave concerns they had about public health and health equity. While the meeting was an opportunity to establish PHJC as a trustworthy, expert source of public health knowledge, it was also a reminder that they are a mobilized constituency capable of applying pressure.

Key lessons

  • Clear, straightforward demands and consistency between talking points, fact sheets and media advisories are important. This helped PHJC ensure that what showed up in the news was consistent with the group's intended message.
  • Media advocacy can open new doors. In this instance, media advocacy led to an opportunity for an in-person meeting and potential future meetings and communication, even after the office staff were initially concerned about media being present. 
  • Think carefully about the tone you want to convey. The group made a strategic decision to strike a positive tone when describing Sen. Feinstein's legacy. They felt that calling on her to uphold a positive legacy would be more effective than only holding her accountable for inaction. 
  • Be creative with the elements of newsworthiness to gain media access. In this case, compelling visuals, a local angle on a federal issue, and holiday peg increased the newsworthiness of PHJC's story. Even on a day when thousands of people were demonstrating across their local area, the news still picked up on their action.
  • Coordinating a media action can happen more quickly than you might think. The action was organized in just six days by a handful people with some support from others. Because they had done their homework, had a newsworthy hook, and sent out media advisories, just 10 people were enough to draw media attention on the day of the action. 
  • Getting media to show up may be easier than it seems. In fact, the TV station that showed up at PHJC's event did so simply as a result of receiving the media advisory submitted via its website. 
  • Leverage the strengths of your team. The group was able maximize its impact by utilizing the strengths of the people involved. One person was already knowledgeable about the Supreme Court nomination; another was connected to an organization that does illustration and could create the visuals for the book; others were connected to people with media advocacy experience.

Although PHJC did not achieve its initial objective of blocking the nomination of Judge Gorsuch, a key lesson the group took away from the experience was that effective mobilization and advocacy can help achieve new goals, even those outside the scope of what was initially imagined. As author and activist Rebecca Solnit writes:

"Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious … actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective."

In a challenging political moment, PHJC's media advocacy effort helped mobilize its base, gain access to the office of an influential elected official, and communicate — via the news and social media — the enormous public health significance of legislative and judicial action. All this helped members in the group to feel more empowered and inspired to engage in further mobilizations.

As the group members stated in the closing remarks of their legislative visit, "To us, this isn't just about politics — this is literally a matter of life and death. People will continue to lose their lives prematurely if our elected officials are not courageous."

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