Special Interests Compete for Media Glory

Advocacy and "special interest" groups elbowing for a piece of government pie and a say on the issues are finding success means more than just winning over congressional members. They are having to elbow their way to relevance among a thinly stretched national media.

The Christian Coalition certainly hit a peak of media exposure in 1994 when it helped the Republican Party win the majority in the U.S. House. Its executive director at the time, Ralph Reed, was a media whiz kid who became the symbol of the pro-life, socially conservative movement of the early 1990s.

But where are they now? Some say they became too political, and when the "Republican revolution" of 1994 lost its zip two years later, they floated off into obscurity.

"People say we're not as effective, but we're still here," said Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs.

Combs said membership is still "fluctuating" around 1 million, and grassroots work among the states is as active as ever.

"Our job is to make sure we let our supporters know what we're doing, motivate and educate," she said.

The National Organization of Women has complained bitterly that journalists are ignoring its issues, whether due to reporters' bias or just plain indifference.

"There is a sense in the media that women's issues aren't important," said NOW President Kim Gandy, who said Congress and the president's unresponsiveness to women's issues "could only be matched by the media."

Gandy accuses news editors of creating a hostile environment to writers who pitch story ideas about gender-related concerns.

"I get a sense that there is certainly something at work here," she said. "Women reporters don't feel like talking about women, about Social Security and how it affects women, the treatment of women in society."

But public relations specialists say when groups lose their edge, it is not the fault of the messenger, but the message.

"I've run campaigns in some of the roughest news markets in the country," said Mike Collins, an independent political consultant. "I never assume it's because the news media doesn't agree with me. I blamed myself for not giving them a compelling enough story."

Collins said groups like the National Rifle Association, the environmentally focused Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Human Rights Campaign, have been successful at remaining front and center because they have been able to articulate their causes and missions.

"They are successful groups that have been there forever and have been quoted successfully," he said. "I think what they have done is genius."

Jeffrey Rosenberg, head of Rosenberg Communications, counts among his clients the Independent Women's Forum, Family First and Americans for Safe and Efficient Transportation. He said getting clients to talk about controversial issues makes them successful.

"There are a lot of organizations in this town that think they are going to influence public opinion by publishing good academic research. They aren't," Rosenberg said.

Nancy Pfotenhauer, president of the Independent Women's Forum, said she has been pleasantly surprised with her organization's success at getting staff and members talking to the media on a host of issues. She agrees that staying fresh — and taking risks — have helped her group along the way.

"Basically, it's an art form, you have a town of people who work hard and you're all competing for relevance," Pfotenhauer said. "The successful ones are nimble and quick and good at watching the news cycle."

Marie Jose Ragab, head of the rogue NOW chapter in Dulles, Va., said the media cannot always be blamed for the lack of attention; that the problem may be more internal.

"They are complaining that the media is not paying attention to them, but the first thing you have to do is produce something of interest," said Ragab, who once worked for the executive offices, but whose chapter is now unrecognized by its officials.

"[NOW has] blocked all forms of activism and expression within the organization. They used to have a lot of bright, younger women — which is needed — who have something to say," she said.

Combs said she doesn't lament the media attention, which she points out was negative much of the time.

"I think the media has been very unfair to the Christian Coalition," she said.

Gandy said she has been giving speeches all over the country and the staff is constantly churning out press releases to grab attention.

"When the media think a story is sexy, they do come to us," she conceded.

Experts say organizations can win over hungry newsmakers by retooling their images, letting go of dead weight internally, hiring outside consultants, and being willing to appear controversial on any given subject.

"It's being quick and nimble; it's being responsive to the times," said Chris Cimko, a lead image-maker at Edelman Public Relations. "It's finding messages and figuring out what to say. Part of it is nurturing relationships with the media. Part of it is having a savvy or big staff or hiring people like us to help them."

"I always tell people when they get negative press, stick with what they believe in and move forward," said Rosenberg. "Some people will never be convinced. The worst thing you can do is have a bunker mentality and never go out of the house, because the bad perceptions will stick."