A Media Manual for Grassroots Activists

Free-Range Thinking | September 2000

Robert Bray’s new book, SPIN WORKS!, teaches public interest groups how to beat high-powered, well-funded opponents at their own game.

“I’m the first to admit ‘spin’ is a negative word,” says Robert Bray. Count me as the second. From my perspective, spin conjures images of high-priced consultants swarming around microphones, explaining what the candidate really meant, defending another heinous act of corporate malfeasance, or generally turning the truth inside out. But Bray hasn’t given up on the s-word just yet. “I’m about reclaiming it and making it work for us so that grassroots activists understand the methods by which information is packaged and communicated through the mass media,” he emphatically states. “Then we can work those tactics and tools to our benefit.”

In 1997, Bray founded the SPIN Project (the acronym stands for “Strategic Press Information Network”), a San Francisco-based public interest group dedicated to teaching grassroots activists how to tell their stories more effectively – in short, how to spin. Last year alone, Bray and his team of media trainers presented their version of “PR with principles” to over 60 groups across the country, from the Appleseed Foundation in Washington, DC, to YouthAction in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If progressive grassroots organizations are becoming more media savvy, the SPIN Project probably had something to do with it, but Bray believes we still have a long way to go.

“Most groups clearly understand the power, influence and role of media in our society,” Bray told me when we spoke in July. “What theydon’t understand is how to engage the media. They don’t understand how a reporter or editor or producer thinks, therefore they aren’t equipped to package the information. They don’t know how to frame issues, or how to condense issues into strategic media messages. They bog down in the rhetoric and jargon that they and the other 12 activists around the table understand, but nobody else does.” SPIN’s media trainings attack this problem directly, but with a full-time staff of 3, Bray can reach only so many people each year. A book, on the other hand, can reach everybody.

“I needed to start putting this stuff down on paper and getting it into an activist-friendly model,” Bray said. With contributions from his staff, most notably Seeta Pe�a Gangadharan and Judy Hong, Bray condensed a semester’s worth of Media 101 into 100+ pages of solid advice, case histories, and clear to-do lists. The result, SPIN WORKS!, is a must-read for fledgling activists (professionals and volunteers alike), and a worthwhile refresher course for seasoned veterans. It is a treasure trove of media how-to’s, including:

  • how to frame your message
  • how to write press releases, media advisories, and op-eds
  • how to pitch reporters over the phone
  • how to assemble a press kit
  • how to arrange an editorial board meeting
  • how to be a better spokesperson

(The book also features “Out of the Salons and into the Saloons,” an essay by populist commentator Jim Hightower that was so inspiring I’ve reprinted it in its entirety with this month’s newsletter.)

Bray has more on his mind here than simply teaching the basics. “Somewhere along the line, we ceded the values argument to the right,” he laments. “They’ve got family values, downsizing government, the individual-should-be-self-sustaining anti-welfare message, immigrant scapegoating, ‘special rights’ for homosexuals, et cetera. Meanwhile our side is talking about redistribution of wealth, environmental racism and parts-per-million pollution – stuff that nobody understands. We’re fearful of talking about values, or we’re afraid of leaving some value out so we don’t talk about any of them.” His book is subtitled, “A Media Guidebook for Communicating Values and Shaping Opinion” because Bray believe we’ve got to let people know we’re not just about the issue at hand: we stand for something.

In the book’s foreword, Bray warns his fellow activists that “we’re spinning for our lives.” Considering the wealth and power of the organizations we frequently battle, I would tend to agree with him. Fortunately, Bray’s work to reclaim the word “spin” is sending an important message to grassroots communicators everywhere. You have a powerful weapon at hand if you have the will and the skill to use it. So stop thinking of it as the s-word. Make it your sword.

How to Stay on Message
Just Say “My Dog Has Three Legs” 
The SPIN Project uses an effective (and funny) role-playing game to help activists recognize that each encounter with a reporter can be an opportunity to deliver your message. In the exercise, one person poses as a reporter while the other plays an activist. The reporter is allowed to ask whatever questions he (or she) chooses, while the activist must find a relatively smooth way to deliver the assigned message, “My dog has three legs.” Here’s a sample exchange (offered by Robert Bray):

How do you feel about Britney Spears music?

I think her music lacks power. It limps along through the cultural landscape of America like a three-legged dog, and I should know since my dog has three legs.

“I was raised to believe it’s impolite not to answer a question,” says Bray. “When you’re asked a question, you answer the question. What we’re teaching activists to do is counterintuitive to how they normally speak, but it’s very important.”

To learn more about The SPIN Project, visit their website (www.spinproject.org). You can also order a copy of SPIN WORKS! through the site or by calling Judy Hong at 415.284.1427.

 free-range follow-up

Lights On, Nobody Home

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press recently completed a survey showing how connected Americans are technologically, but how disconnected they remain from some fairly important (and high-profile) issues. Before you launch that next public education campaign about an issue people must be interested in, you may want to scan the following numbers:

Connected by Technology Disconnected by Nature
79% have cable or satellite TV
59% own home computers
53% own mobile telephones
29% log onto the Internet daily
84% not paying close attention to Microsoft break-up story
71% unaware of the federal budget surplus
56% don’t know who Alan Greenspan is
50% follow national news only when “something is happening”

People naturally tune out messages they believe aren’t about them, but when 7 out of 10 think the surplus can be ignored, imagine what (if anything) they’re thinking about climate change, affirmative action, or genetically engineered foods. Keep these numbers in mind when you plan your next campaign, and strive to aim your message at your target’s highest core interests: their health, pocketbook, community – the stuff they think about every day.