By wrapping its review of Bush’s first year in a sly “(Dis)Appointments Calendar,” Earthjustice earned exceptional coverage for the story and itself.
When it comes to engaging my interest, getting a free calendar in the mail ranks right up there with telemarketing calls hawking cheaper long distance rates. And to be perfectly candid, the 2002 wall calendar that the environmental group Earthjustice sent my way in January features what may be the ugliest 12 months I’ve ever seen. Those decidedly un-pretty pictures, however, were precisely the group’s point.
Entitled “(Dis)Appointments: Bush Officials and the Administration’s Environmental Record – Year 1,” the calendar spotlights twelve appointees to the cabinet, EPA, and other federal agencies who have meant hard times for the environment. Earthjustice created the piece to draw media attention to the administration’s increasingly pro-industry slant, as well as to build relationships with journalists on the environmental beat. The strategy has clearly paid off. The New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National Journal were three of several media outlets that ran high profile stories or op-eds inspired by the calendar, demonstrating how thoughtful attention to packaging can give a good story even greater impact.
Planning for the first-year review began in September 2001, four months prior to the official anniversary date. This early start gave Cara Pike, Earthjustice’s Vice President of Communications, and her colleagues sufficient time to consider creative alternatives to a conventional text-heavy and amusement-free report. “We wanted to do something different,” Pike explained, “because every other group was likely to be having the same conversation.”
In Earthjustice’s DC office, a brainstorming team comprised of Joan Mulhern, Ken Goldman, Suzanne Carrier and Maria Weidner began considering different formats for the review. Guided by the principles that the winning format (a) must have the ability to carry a significant amount of information, and (b) must deliver this information in an entertaining manner, the foursome eventually narrowed their list of ideas to two finalists: a high school style yearbook and a 12-month wall calendar. The team ultimately chose the calendar based on the hope it might actually be used after an initial reading – and earning wall-space in a reporter’s cubicle was one measure of success for this project.
Weidner, who directs Earthjustice’s White House Watch project, took the lead on assembling the photographs, background information, and embarrassing quotes for the twelve featured (dis)appointments. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who earned a lifetime environmental voting score of 3.7 (out of 100) from the League of Conservation Voters, was slotted in as Mr. January. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, whose appointment was bitterly contested by the environmental community, was assigned to April. Christine Todd Whitman, the Admininstrator of the EPA, which is under fire for lax enforcement of clean air rules, earned the hot seat in August.
The calendar also includes a few names and faces whose anti-environmental records may not be as well known. John D. Graham, for example, was appointed to the role of Administrator in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB. According to Earthjustice, Graham “tried to insert language into an EPA report that questioned the health effects of dioxin on humans,” and he is quoted in a speech to the Heritage Foundation saying, “Environmental regulation should be depicted as an incredible intervention in the operation of society.” With apologies to Reggie Jackson, Earthjustice tabbed Graham as their Mr. October.
With all twelve (dis)appointments in place, Goldman and Carrier began working with Sustain, a public interest agency based in Chicago, to design the calendar. Sustain’s creative team of John Beske, James Bell, and Kerry Diane Finnerty served up a professional, four-color piece that could have been issued by the Sierra Club, except in place of breathtaking nature shots you have grim-faced bureaucrats staring back at you.
Earthjustice printed 5,000 calendars and mailed nationwide to 400 environmental reporters, 300 editorial boards, 500 progressive radio stations, and 250 alternative weekly newspapers. The organization also worked with the Los Angeles-based Environmental Media Association to put calendars in the hands of late-night TV comedy writers. All mailings were timed to arrive five days prior to January 20, 2002, the one-year anniversary date for the Bush Administration.
On that day, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an editorial entitled, “Bush Appointees Come with Biases” sharply criticizing Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles (Mr. May) and Assistant Secretary of the Army Mike Parker (Mr. July). Eight days later, an editorial in The New York Times noted, “For conservationists, Mr. Bush’s first year was a big disappointment,” specifically pointing to John Ashcroft’s antagonistic stances around forests and wetlands. The Austin Chronicle, KQED-FM, The National Journal, TomPaine.com and many other media outlets joined the chorus condemning Bush’s environmental record. Pike readily concedes that the Earthjustice calendar was not the only reason behind all this coverage, but follow-up conversations with reporters indicated that it definitely played a role.
When she first held the finished product in her hands, Pike had what she called an “Oh-my-god-are-we-really-doing-this?” moment. She knew, however, that all the information had been carefully researched and that the piece was tied to a strong news peg. The media response confirmed her faith in the unorthodox approach, and several calls from radio and alternative newspaper reporters thanking Earthjustice for producing such a clever piece were icing on the cake. Best of all, the total cost for the entire project (which was entirely underwritten by a foundation grant) came in at less than $27,000.
Are there more calendars in Earthjustice’s future? No plans are on the drawing board just yet, says Pike, but one lesson of the (Dis)Appointment Calendar is clear. “People are being hit over the head with doomsday storytelling, and they’re tuning those messages out to some extent,” says Pike. “The more interesting the presentation, the more you can use humor to get your point across, the better.” In short: sometimes it’s the package that delivers.
(To request a calendar, visit www.earthjustice.org/policy/admin/calendar.html)
Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Ms. April 2002.
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