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June 26, 2009

During Gitmo Arguments, PR Raises a Small Nonprofit's Profile to Gain Huge National Awareness

By Frank Zeccola

Since 9/11, the issue of constitutional law versus "defending terrorists" has sparked enormous debate in this country. The biggest symbol of this debate and its complex issues is Guantanamo Bay.

PR is often called on to jump into these fierce, divisive national debates. That's exactly what happened in late 2007.

The U.S. Supreme Court prepared to hear oral arguments in the landmark Guantanamo Bay prisoners' rights case, called Boumediene v. Bush. And the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights was fighting to define the case in terms of constitutional law—and not as "defending terrorists."

The Center is comprised of attorneys who represent 250 Guantanamo detainees. In October of 2007, they tapped the Glover Park Group to change the Gitmo debate in the media and grow the Center's base of support surrounding the Supreme Court case—set to take place in December of that year.

The challenge: Change the Guantanamo debate through a high-profile PR campaign for an unknown nonprofit. "One huge goal for us was to differentiate the Center from other human rights groups engaged in the Guantanamo debate," says Glover Park Group director Nell McGarity. "There were a lot of big names involved in this debate, including Amnesty International and the ACLU. The Center for Constitutional Rights does great work, but if you would have asked people on the street about them, many would say they hadn't heard of them."

Yet the Center was clearly playing a huge role in the Guantanamo Supreme Court case. Not only did they represent 250 detainees at the prison, they also coordinated more than 500 pro bono attorneys who represent the rest of the detainees.

A lot was at stake: "Many of these detainees had been held for seven years without the hope of getting out," McGarity says. "The issue in the case was over whether or not the detainees would be able to challenge their detention."

The strategy: Use the Center's attorneys to illustrate habeas corpus with media-friendly, impactful messaging. Glover Park and the Center had to frame the debate in terms of constitutional law and the rights of the detainees. One way they could do it was bring the issue of habeas corpus to the forefront of the debate. "The attorneys could sue the government to get the detainees the right to habeas corpus," McGarity says.

Habeas corpus protects the rights of inmates and ensures that they're brought to court to determine whether they're imprisoned lawfully or whether they should be released. And it protects suspected criminals from being held for a crime without being charged. It had Gitmo written all over it.

The Center and Glover Park saw an opportunity to open up the debate: "Many people might not be familiar with habeas corpus and the legal end of Guantanamo," McGarity says. "We had to describe it in words that would resonate with the public."

To do this, they could use the Center's attorneys as spokespersons: "We did media training and a lot of messaging work to fine tune the talking points with the attorneys and illustrate the legal quagmire," McGarity says. "The attorneys' ability to take these complicated legal issues and translate them into palatable, accessible terms was really helpful."

In addition, the attorneys "had information straight from the men held in Guantanamo who were trying to navigate the legal system. We had access to these attorneys and could report on any progress. This was our best asset."

They had everything they needed to go to the media: "We outlined an aggressive campaign that used media relations, advertising and different web tactics, from video to engaging the Center's email list."

An added challenge: An unknown timeline. The Supreme Court oral hearings would take place on December 5, 2007. However, the Court's decision on the case would come at an unknown time.

It could take hours. Or months. "Our campaign was built around the time gap between the oral arguments and the decision. We had to build a crescendo and keep momentum going. One of the challenges, however, was that the decision would come at an undisclosed time. In most PR campaigns, you know the timeline. This was an extra challenge on top of tackling a huge political issue."

Keys to success: Rapid, aggressive traditional and risky guerrilla PR tactics. "One big key to success in this campaign was our clients' willingness to take some serious risks, be aggressive and use the information they had to substantively brief reporters and engage the public in creative ways," McGarity says.

In addition, Glover Park chose their target audience wisely. "From the beginning, we decided that we were only going to speak to likely supporters—and people who were likely to be outraged" over the legal treatment of the detainees, McGarity says. Instead of trying to persuade opponents, Glover Park and the Center played to their base.

A Constitutional stunt: Glover Park joins with "Billionaires for Bush" and Santa Claus to deliver the Constitution to President Bush. The oral hearings took place in early December, as scheduled. As they awaited the decision of the Supreme Court, "We leveraged different milestones throughout the campaign," McGarity says.

Their next move could be described as bold. Or subversive. Or ballsy: "We sent out an action alert asking the Center's email list subscribers if they wanted to send a copy of the Constitution to President Bush for Christmas," McGarity says. Many subscribers did. "We had 37,000 people sign up to send copies of the Constitution to the President."

Then: "The Center teamed up with [grassroots satirical group] Billionaires for Bush and rented a horse-drawn carriage, which they dressed up as a reindeer. As it turned out, one of the Center's former legal directors looks like Santa Claus. We had him dress up like Santa and ride the reindeer and sleigh through Washington to deliver copies of the Constitution to President Bush."

They started at the Washington Monument and rode straight up 17th Street, stopping at Pennsylvania Avenue right in front of the White House. "Santa got out of his sleigh with a giant stack of Constitutions and went right up to the guards policing the gates. He asked the guards if he could give the Constitution to Bush, but they said 'no.' He then tried all the gates around the White House. There was a funny exchange where Santa said, 'Does the President not want the Constitution?' and the guards said, 'No.' The Billionaires filmed the whole thing."

Better, they had previously pitched the story to Fox News. The network came out to the White House that day and also filmed the whole thing. The story ran during daytime coverage and on "The O'Reilly Factor." During the show, Bill O'Reilly came out and said, "Those crazy liberals are at it again."

It was meant to be insulting, but "It was exactly what we wanted," McGarity says.

From there, "The Billionaires cut it into a clever online video, which received 85,000 YouTube hits. That was beyond what we expected. And in the end, we could say that we at least tried to deliver the Constitution to the president."

The results: Total coverage: 78 million media impressions in favor of the Center. At 10 a.m. on Thursday, June 12, more than seven months after the hearings, the Supreme Court released it decision in Boumediene v. Bush. The split decision was entirely in the Center's favor, granting the writ of habeas corpus to detainees held at Guantanamo. Victory in hand, Glover Park began executing its rapid response mechanism. "Part of our success was our rapid response effort," McGarity says. "It came down to being organized and delivering the facts to reporters on their timeline. We were successful in doing that."

It paid off: After a press conference at noon, speakers from the Center were booked on every cable news network and mentioned in every wire story and major national newspaper. Additionally, every major newspaper editorialized on the decision—most in support of the outcome. All told, the campaign generated nearly 78 million total media impressions. This coverage outpaced human rights competitor ACLU by a ratio of nine to one.

The hits continue to roll in. Following this intensive media coverage, the Center's executive director went on a 10-city speaking tour, with Glover Park booking engagements at venues including Town Hall Los Angeles, the Commonwealth Club, University of Washington Law School, UCLA Law School, UC-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law and Harvard University.

"This was a timely campaign," McGarity says. "The Center is a great organization that does great work. To see them quoted in The New York Times was thrilling—and now it's a regular thing. In addition, the Center played a role in the media coverage you now see about Guantanamo, and that's a tribute to the great work they do. And everyone likes to see the little guy win."

Secrets for success: Read on as McGarity offers more tips and explains why this campaign won the Grand Prize—in addition to two Gold awards, in Best Issue/Cause Advocacy Campaign and Best Response to Breaking News, and a Bronze in Best Not-for-Profit/Association/Government Campaign—at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity:

1. Build media relationships with top beat reporters by pitching substantive, frequently updated information. "One key thing we did in this campaign was become a resource for beat reporters on the Guantanamo and federal-courts beats," she stresses. "With a lot of groups vying for their attention, it's key to come to reporters with substantive information if you want to build relationships. You can't just pitch based on your organization's reputation. You should have solid pieces of information ready and be able to go back to the reporters with frequent updates. The relationship should be built that way."

2. Carefully consider your audiences when targeting messages during politically charged campaigns. "Part of our success in this issues-oriented campaign was targeting our messages to the audience they most resonated with," she says. "We definitely targeted like-minded people. We knew we couldn't go on conservative radio programs, and we didn't pitch newspapers with conservative editorial boards. The timeline was too short to change people's minds. And since the debate was so heated, we figured people's perspectives on Guantanamo were deeply rooted in their political views. There's not a lot of middle ground when it comes to locking people up and throwing away the key. A compromise would not be satisfactory in this case. In other campaigns, that might be a core goal—but not for us in this case."

3. Think wide and broad: Sync media results with on- and offline outreach to create a snowball effect of visibility. "If you achieve a small success, follow up on it and try to turn it into a bigger success," she recommends. For example: "We did a lot of media outreach with the Center's executive director in this campaign, but it didn't stop there. We also went to law school forums and tried to get him speaking engagements on college campuses. We said, 'Did you see the Center on Air America yesterday?' It wasn't just a radio hit, or a column in the newspaper, or a speaking engagement at Harvard. It was all of that—and we coordinated the media coverage to maximize results."

WINNER'S PROFILE: The Glover Park Group specializes in using research-based messaging to drive creative solutions for the communications challenges of corporations, foundations and non-profit organizations.

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