Savvy PR firms drive coverage of HHS mandate

I’m going to back into the media analysis here by mentioning that there is a very media-savvy, progressive public relations non-profit called Faith in Public Life. The Washington Post describes the group as one of several organizations that “that meld religion and liberal politics” and the group itself describes its work here:

Faith in Public Life provides strategic media guidance for broad-based issue campaigns, individual faith leaders, and national, state and local groups. We help our partners think through communications goals and implement communications plans tailored to meet those goals. On any given effort, our work could include:

developing and disseminating strategic messaging
designing paid-media campaigns (i.e. newspaper or radio ads)
building tailored press lists by media market, city, or area of coverage
identifying and training key clergy spokespeople for media appearances and public events
writing and distributing media advisories and press releases
pitching and booking spokespeople to broadcast media
crafting, editing and/or placing opinion pieces
conducting new-media outreach via blogs and social media
sharing information via Facebook or Twitter
advising on tactics, and strategy for media events (press conferences, prayer vigils, rallies, etc.)

In addition to advising partners on planned, pro-active campaigns, FPL also closely monitors the news cycle for moments of opportunity. When news breaks, we can respond within hours, inserting voices from the faith community into coverage while the story is still developing.

FPL also provides media, communications and messaging trainings to a range of audiences, such as politically active clergy and faith-based organizers working on key issue priorities across the country. FPL provides tailored curricula, presents highly effective messages, and helps leaders practice and develop their skills. Trainings can focus on organizing events that earn media coverage, talking to print and TV reporters, and developing cohesive and powerful messaging.

By deploying sound strategies and industry best practices, we have been able to amplify the faith community’s moral witness on important issues such as climate change, immigration reform and health care.

It was formed in the aftermath of the 2004 exit polls showing that values voters played a role in John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush. It’s very well funded (including by the obligatory Open Society Institute of George Soros). And Faith in Public Life has been doing a ton of work with their partners in support of Obamacare, among other progressive issues. This 2009 990 says, for instance, that it’s affiliated Action Fund “placed organizers in five key states to organize for health care reform.”

When the HHS mandate requiring religious groups to fund various things they doctrinally oppose, Faith in Public Life worked with reporters to advocate for their particular political take on things. I learned about this the same way I learn about a lot of things: CNN’s BeliefBlog. Dan Gilgoff wrote about how liberal Catholic activists were working to fight the bishops on the mandate. In this snippet below, you can see how Faith in Public Life works — pushing out a carefully calibrated quote via email timed for the right moment, following up with a call with a particularly well chosen spokesperson. The overall campaign could probably be called “Catholic Bishops Losing Credibility on Religious Liberty Campaign.”

Another Washington-based Catholic operative, John Gehring, e-mailed reporters over the weekend to knock the bishops for criticizing President Barack Obama, even after his administration revised its contraception rule Friday to mandate that insurers – not Catholic institutions – pay for birth control coverage.

“You have to ask why the bishops can’t take yes for an answer,” wrote Gehring, who works with the progressive group Faith in Public Life.

On Wednesday, Gehring helped organize a call with reporters to discuss a congressional hearing this week at which some bishops are expected to testify against the contraception rule. “I believe everything my church teaches,” Nicholas Cafardi, a prominent Catholic lawyer, said on the call, voicing support for the birth control rule. ” I don’t consider this as a question of dogma, but of how we apply Catholic teaching in the real world.”

Faith in Public Life notes on its web site, dryly, “FPL did reporter outreach following the HHS contraception accommodation.”

And, indeed, this public relations campaign has been a wild success. They deserve major kudos. They are but one of many groups working to frame this issue as “bishops lose credibility on ‘religious liberty’ campaign,” but the overall work of these groups can be seen in most broadcast and print media outlets.

You might compare that with how a reporter recently asked me for names of women who could speak on recent Catholic issues such as Sister Maureen Fiedler’s book review from the Vatican, the HHS mandate and what not. I’m not Catholic but I know some Catholics and I ended up giving her a dozen or so names of some great sources (feel free to hit me up if you need any help on this).  I have to assume that the people fighting the mandate have some type of public relations campaign going on but considering that I learned about the most recent religious freedom rallies held nationwide last Friday hours before they began, I’m assuming it’s not at the caliber of what we’re seeing elsewhere. Some public relations campaigns are better than others. And yes, you can moan and groan about how reporters are too willing to adopt PR campaign framing and sources, but you try writing three stories a day and then get back to us.

So I’m not even really complaining when I point out this Mitchell Landsberg story in the Los Angeles Times that has been carried in papers across the country. The headline in the Times is “Are Catholic bishops abandoning nonpartisanship in contraception battle?

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops have long prided themselves on being political without being partisan, throwing themselves into the scrum of public affairs without aligning themselves with one party or the other.

Now, some Catholics are beginning to wonder out loud whether the bishops have abandoned their historic non-partisanship – or, at least, are at risk of being seen that way – as they press forward with a vigorous campaign against contraception provisions in President Barack Obama’s health care plan.

Later we’re told that “some liberal and moderate Catholics are uncomfortable” with blending politics and religion. So probably these “some Catholics” wouldn’t be anyone at a group that blends liberal politics and religion, right?

“I think the real danger bishops need to confront is getting this dragged through the political mud just a few months before an election,” said John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life a liberal, faith-based advocacy group. “I think some of the alarmist rhetoric that some church leaders are using gives the impression that some bishops are quite happy making this part of a Republican campaign.”

Gehring said there was a risk that the bishops could come to be seen as “the Republican Party at Prayer” – which, he stressed, he does not believe is the case.

Give Gehring a raise! The rest of the article is fine, even accurately explaining both the mandate and the response to the mandate.

Anyway, there have been so many people complaining to GetReligion about the framing of this story and the general lack of balance in the coverage, from the very first days that the Catholic bishops began their campaign against the HHS mandate. Sometimes it’s worth complaining less and thinking about what reporters need to do their job.

Again, we’re talking about people who are under enormous pressure, frequently writing multiple stories a day, and dealing with very complex issues throughout the week. It’s nice when a PR professional can deliver you an angle, a framing device, some quotes and much of what else you need.

That doesn’t sufficiently explain why we’re still seeing the use of the same framing months on end, but there are probably other factors playing into that as well.

Public relations image via Shutterstock.

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  • John Penta

    That thwacking sound: A headdesking Catholic on the other side of the issue.

    Seriously. Does anybody know, offhand, how old Sr. Walsh (the USCCB’s PR person) is, and whether such offices are subject to the 75 age limit of ecclesiastical posts?

    I *know* (now) that FPL is funded by Soros and probably lots of others…But is it too much to ask that the bishops’ PR office *tries* to reach the same caliber as their opponents?

    If, as I suspect, part of the problem is that USCCB’s media folks are, um, of a certain age, and not exactly of the training or mindset for what the bishops are asking of the PR side of the staff (which, regardless of the issue, seems to boil down to “step up your game, by a large factor”), it might go a long way to explaining why they seem flatfooted so often.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I have long believed — 20 years at least — that conservatives in general and religious conservatives in particular were WAY behind their liberal counterparts in marketing, public relations, and in general controlling the conversation.

    The thing is, a lot has to do with “spin,” which smacks of dishonesty. Now, in politics, I don’t expect there to be much scruples with respect to honesty on either side of the aisle, except to the extent that the politician in question has functioning religious convictions. Among religious people, I would expect a strong distaste for spin and manipulation in general of one’s opponents and of public opinion.

    Politics and public opinion can be a very dirty arena in which to play. It is difficult to be honest and reasonable, and thus to prevail.

  • Martha

    “I have to assume that the people fighting the mandate have some type of public relations campaign going on”

    Mollie, three minutes on Google informed me that the USSCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) have a website, a media section, and that there is a list of news releases they’ve sent out (this is the one about the “Fortnight for Freedome” where “Dioceses nationwide will highlight religious liberty during the Fortnight for Freedom, June 21-July 4.”)

    The Director of Media Relations is Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, a Sister of Mercy, who has her own Twitter page.

    The Communications and Media Relations staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have their own blog.

    Maybe they are just sitting on their hands, expecting the press to come to them, and are not using the best pro-active techniques. Or maybe they are sending out news releases and the reporters are binning them without even reading them because they’re not handily broken down into pre-digested, bullet-listed talking points, but instead have huge chunks of text explaining dull boring doctrine as the underlying reasoning behind the bishops’ opposition (I mean, “opposition to the effects of artificial contraception on the unitive and procreative aspects of matrimonial relations” versus “War on Women” – which do you think makes a catchier headline?). I don’t know.

    Just in case the ladies and gentlemen of the Third Estate need a contact phone number (other than that of Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, which apparently they all possess already) as a public service I will cut and paste the USCCB blurb on their media relations page:

    “The Office of Media Relations represents the Catholic Bishops of the United States to the media and the media to the bishops. Responsibilities include preparing and distributing statements and other resources for the media, arranging for interviews with bishops and staff of the USCCB, organizing press conferences, responding to media queries and credentialing media for coverage of such events as the bishops’ annual meetings.

    Media inquiries are welcomed via email or by calling 202.541.3000.”

    There ye go, lads! Just ask for Mary Ann!

  • Ben

    Martha – Just because a phone number exists doesn’t mean questions get answered on it in a timely and persuasive manner. I have no idea in this particular case, but media savvy is much more than having a public point of contact.

  • Jerry

    A 2006 Washington Post article on the religious left is the basis for this post? What about the conservative Christian PR firms?

    The power of PR firms have been subject of interest for years. For example, reaching back to 2006, there’s this report:

    The Power of Conservative Spinning
    How the right outguns the left in the PR wars

    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3059

    Or how about this very recent report:

    The number of religious advocacy groups in the nation’s capital has more than tripled since the 1970s, with conservative groups seeing the biggest growth, according to a recent report.

    http://www.sj-r.com/features/x370662708/Faith-based-advocacy-groups-grow-in-number-clout

    So what really bugged me about your post was the difference between the headline Savvy PR firms drive coverage of HHS mandate and the content of the post. Because I kept waiting for the multiple savvy PR firms on BOTH sides of the issue to be discussed rather than the focus on just one.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jerry,

    Come on. The basis of this post was a story written this week in the Los Angeles Times. The reiteration of the same PR spin made me think it might be worth reflecting on how narratives are pushed and adopted.

    The basis of this post was not a reference to a Post profile of the firm in 2006 — although nothing has changed about the non-profit organization relative to that description in the years since that profile. In fact, I was thinking about taking a clip from the group’s own 990 but figured I should save the clips for their “what we do” section.

    I really just didn’t want to place all the blame/credit on this one firm because they are part of a coalition, of course. Open Society Institute helped launch more than a few progressive Christian groups for the same ends.

    As for the savvy pr firms on the other side, I honestly don’t have any ideas where they would be. I mean, have you seen any? A casual glance at our posts over the last several months would tell you that those concerned about this mandate relative to religious liberty aren’t exactly getting their message across.

    In my view, the PR by those in support of the mandate have absolutely crushed the other side. Probably much of that has to do with having a friendly media. But I still think they deserve some credit. I mean, you read how a reporter was asking *me* for names of good Catholic women to speak to? Me, a Lutheran media critic? If that isn’t indicative of how insufficient the pr efforts are on the other side…

    And everyone should keep their eyes open to how narratives get framed, advanced, pushed, etc. But also, rather than just complain about how biased and one-sided things are, people need to think about how to effectively reach reporters.

    Like Ben said, a phone number isn’t sufficient.

    Another thing I wanted to mention in the post, though, was how well CNN handled the fact that they were being given information by a public relations group. The story highlighted what the PR firm said, but was quite open and clear about that operation. I appreciate that as a reader, particularly relative to how it was handled in the LA Times this week.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The Catholic Church is not one to think in terms of PR savvy. But the bishops may be getting it: U.S. bishops plan PR campaign to soften image. Emphasis on may be getting it. Look at the names cited in the story and it’s clear that the more ‘liberal’ bishops (O’Malley, Kicanas, Cupich) see a need to be kinder, gentler and “inviting,” while there are bishops who want to go “hard” without the press. Who those latter bishops are we don’t know, because Reuters doesn’t name them.

    What we don’t know is whether or not there are bishops who see the need to get the truth out there via the various media and who want to do it without soft-pedaling things, without being “inviting,” as Bishop Cupich said.

    And is Reuters even correct in its headline? Are there really plans for a PR campaign? Or was it just the bishops griping with one another during their meeting? Believe me, plans like this don’t come after one morning meeting of the bishops.

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    Um. Savvy conservative spokepeople who get quoted a lot? Focus on the Family. ACLJ. Acton Institute. American Family Institute. CBN. Concerned Women For America. Traditional Values Coalition. Eagle Forum. Hannity. Limbaugh. Land. And that’s without asking Mr. Google for help.

    But it seems to me this all misses a point. The Catholic Church through the USCCB is an institution that is regularly disseminating its position. If a reporter wants to find it, it’s one click away. The USCCB doesn’t need a PR agency because it is its own best source for its own positions.

    The opposition, OTOH, is diffuse. There’s no bishop or pope for the other side. So reporters are forced — not in a bad way but because that’s how the dispute is organized — to find representative spokespeople for the other side. Which is a challenge in any dispute. Who decides who the spokepeople are? Faith In Public Life has positioned itself to be one of the go-to organizations for that response.

    Having said all that, I’ll agree that the LA Times story is not as even-handed as it could have been. Liberals may wonder if the bishops have abandoned non-partisanship. Conservatives may wonder if the bishops are finally reemphasizing traditional theological positions. I don’t doubt that the first is true. I also don’t doubt that the second is true. The story nods at the second. But the way the story is frames emphasizes the first.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    To use but one of your examples, Rush Limbaugh, do you think that his one-man radio show helped or hurt the cause of fighting the HHS mandate on religious freedom grounds? Is savvy the right word to use, even if that “slut” snippet hadn’t been extricated from his show and pushed out in yet another pr campaign by yet another Soros-funded group?

    As for him and the rest, I don’t think a single one of those is a public relations non-profit, are they?

    There are thousands of political groups that get quoted in various stories. This isn’t about that phenomenon or even their media campaigns in general, but just this one story, and how effectively some groups have worked its messaging.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Jeffrey,

    Even if the bishops are the go-to people and even if they are their own disseminators of information, that doesn’t mean they do a good job with that dissemination. Their Communications Office consists of about three to four people who are there basically to answer questions and write press releases, not to be proactive in contacting media outlets and being sure their point of view gets a fair hearing.

    Now it’s probably a stretch to think that the bishops’ viewpoints will ever get a fair hearing except on issues the media like the Church doing — immigration, feeding the poor, etc. So an even more basic question is, even if they had the PR savvy of any of the previously mentioned organizations, would that help them be heard any better than they are now?

  • JC

    The charges of partisanship are unfair, period. When the bishops make statement after public statement about how we need to reform our immigration laws or put an end to capital punishment, are they being partisan, or bringing the battle to whatever political power is acting contrary to the teaching of the Church?

    The problem with such a charge is that it makes presumptions about the underlying motives of the bishops, i.e. that they don’t really care about upholding what their Church teaches, they really just want to stick it to their political enemy (who they hate for some reason redounds not to their credit, no doubt). Note how this attribution is made in one scenario and not the other.

    It’s fair for reporters to give voice to those who think this way, unreasonable or uninformed as such thinking may be in light of the work that these men actually do in the world. But they should be conscientious in quoting the other side of it, too. And not one line from the bottom.

  • Julia

    It may not explain everything, but it sure explains a lot.

    The funniest part of what the media is falling for is that the bishops are trying to bring down Obama. They are almost all Democrats.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Interesting story here that may relate to some of what we’re talking about.

  • http://www.juliaduin.com Julia Duin

    The USCCB press office is often out-gunned and undermanned in this conflict. Over a 7-9-year period when I was calling them frequently, often it was very hard to get through to anyone; or the person who did get back to me was often tired and grumpy. The office also seemed to have a high rate of turnover. It often seemed as though only one or two people in the entire office were getting back to reporters. (My most potent memory of Sr. Mary Ann was of her blocking the hallway at the North American College of Bishops in Rome during the papal transition when we reporters were trying to find folks to quote.) The place desperately needs to triple the amount of media staff as they are seriously out-gunned.


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