Minnesotans Against Terrorism

Minnesotans Against Terrorism are models of local media activism.

When Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, demonstrated clear patterns of anti-Israel bias and whitewashing of Palestinian terror, MAT was formed by concerned locals to fight back. The group’s campaign featured a full-page ad that they managed to place on the Star-Tribune’s own pages – no small feat. The MAT campaign eventually elicited admissions by Star Tribune editors that their Israel coverage had been “awful,” an “editorial disaster,” an “egregious stumble” and an “embarrassing wart.”

For their remarkable success at raising awareness on the issue, the MAT media campaign has now received the “2003 Bulldog Award for Media Relations Excellence & Publicity” from the public relations organization Infocom. To accompany the award, Infocom has just released an article that chronicles MAT’s success. It all began like this:

When Minneapolis-based businessman Marc Grossfield and attorney Mark Rotenberg—founders of MAT—returned from Israel, having eyewitnessed a suicide bombing a few feet in front of them, they were justifiably peeved to find their hometown paper refer to these incidents as the work of “activists” or “rebels.” It was enough to make them start an organization to educate others about such misreportings. The main question was, where to begin?

Read the whole article by clicking here:

For PR pros in the business of issue advocacy, there is no more powerful vehicle than the editorial pages. But what if your client’s primary mission is to expose the flawed reporting practices and confront the editorial bias of the biggest daily in your hometown—regarding its coverage of a politically charged issue, no less? Your advocacy problem is compounded when the very paper you want to score op-ed ink in is the one you’re attacking. Freedom of speech is one thing, but business is business, and what newspaper is going to sully its rep to print embarrassing charges about its own even-handedness?

This was the challenge facing Amy Rotenberg of Minneapolis-based Padilla Speer Beardsley when a non-profit called Minnesotans Against Terrorism (MAT), came to her in December 2001 to manage their inaugural media relations campaign, “Speaking Terror’s Name: A Campaign For Media Fairness.” MAT had just been founded in response to the habit of certain media—particularly Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune—to “sanitize” news reports about the bombing of Israeli civilians by referring to those responsible as “militants” or “activists” rather than “terrorists.” Without any prior publicity, the group decided to first tackle the issue locally by exposing the Star Tribune’s editorial prejudice to its readers. What better way to do that than through the paper’s own pages? But how the heck is Rotenberg supposed to convince this venerable Knight-Ridder-owned top-20 daily to publish an attack on itself?

That’s where PR genius comes in. Rotenberg decided she would take out a full-page advertisement in the Star Tribune. Unlike most ads though, this wasn’t a promo piece. Instead, the ad contained over 350 signatures in support of MAT from prominent civic, business and religious leaders, including Governor Ventura and both U.S. Senators from Minnesota. It also featured excerpts from a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, which voiced a similar complaint about the Star Tribune’s reporting.

Did this bring Rotenberg the exposure she was hoping for? She got that and more—much more. The story not only made the Star Tribune, it was covered in the LA Times, the Boston Globe, the Denver Post and the Houston Chronicle, which credited MAT with sparking a national debate on how the press reports about terrorism. Broadcast hits mounted by the dozens—even “The O’Reilly Factor” called.

Within weeks, MAT went from an obscure non-profit to a group of prominent spokespersons on the issue of terrorism. Follow Rotenberg’s intriguing, counter-intuitive PR maneuvers, and you’ll find a handful of shrewd new techniques for advancing your cause—and your coverage—in the face of negative media bias.

Draw a campaign spark from a well-lit media fire.
When Minneapolis-based businessman Marc Grossfield and attorney Mark Rotenberg—founders of MAT—returned from Israel, having eyewitnessed a suicide bombing a few feet in front of them, they were justifiably peeved to find their hometown paper refer to these incidents as the work of “activists” or “rebels.” It was enough to make them start an organization to educate others about such misreportings. The main question was, where to begin?

Since MAT was an unknown group taking on the biggest media outlet in in town, Amy Rotenberg was initially puzzled where to start. However, when she found out MAT had allies in high places, her direction became clear. “There were discussions prior to the publication of the Wall Street Journal op-ed [by James Taranto, February 4, 2002], but after the piece came out we knew it was something more people needed to see,” Rotenberg recalls. “It also captured our message in a very effective way. Upon reading the op-ed, we asked ourselves how we could use it, and it eventually became the touchpoint for the campaign.”

Why advertising and PR make good bedfellows.
With evidence of strong support from one of the leading national dailies, why not just submit an op-ed excerpting the Journal—which might carry more weight than an ad? “We chose to run an ad because it was the only way to get any space in the newspaper we were attacking,” says Rotenberg. “We knew the Star Tribune was not likely to publish an op-ed from us.”

“As it turned out, they were extremely resistant even to running a paid advertisement,” she continues. “I spent a lot of time dealing with the legal counsel of the paper, and they wouldn’t allow us the [courtesy] non-profit discount—we had to pay full price for the ad. Then they asked for written documentation of all the names on the ad—a practice that had never before been required. They even resisted publishing the [WSJ] excerpts, claiming copyright infringement, but we were able to [convince] them it was for educational purposes, not financial gain.”

Click here to see the ad

Generate buzz by enlisting powerful allies.
To demonstrate widespread support for her cause, Rotenberg solicited signatures from top civic, business and religious leaders throughout Minnesota. “Through our network of personal contacts, we sent out copies of the ad and our concept. As more people signed on, it blossomed into an email [chain letter],” she relates.” Every time a new person signed on, we could say for example, ‘Now we’ve got the support of Governor Ventura.’ The more big names we got, the easier it was to get more, because it added to our credibility.”

Organize your own media frenzy with a press conference.
So how did Rotenberg ‘convince’ the Star Tribune to run her ad? She arranged it so that if they did not publish it, they would look even worse—she announced a press conference and rallied a massive crowd. “As soon as the paper found out our press conference was going to happen they knew, one way or another, the word was going to get out. I imagine they did not want to look like they were avoiding the issue.”

The conference was a smash. Rotenberg scheduled it for the morning the ad appeared and staged it at the state capitol. The location proved serendipitous when virtually everybody working there attended. “We wanted to make sure we got as many members of the media as possible to attend,” she says. “We sent advisories out by fax and even hand-delivered them physically onto the desks of the Capitol Press Corps. We figured at a minimum, some of them would show up since it was taking place in their building. They all showed up.”

Follow-up press releases that need no introduction.
Rotenberg’s media blitz of April 2 spawned enough coverage to make most PR pros drool, but this campaign was never about hits, it was about tackling an issue. When subsequent evidence came to light that the Star Tribune was censoring copy from AP and New York Times stories, Rotenberg sent out another release—and this time she didn’t need an ad or press conference to draw media attention.

“The campaign could have ended with the ad,” says Rotenberg. “We could have not organized a press conference or tried to turn the ad into a newsworthy event, but the combination made it very interesting news. Once the national media was onto the story, it became a lot easier to fuel the fire with subsequent press releases. We put out two more releases and the media covered it on their own [without follow-up].”

Rotenberg’s final release was the icing on the cake. After the media received her April 12 scoop about the Star Tribune censoring copy, the paper was forced to concede. By May 29, she was able to send a release that quoted Star Tribune editors admitting their coverage had been “awful,” an “editorial disaster,” an “egregious stumble” and an “embarrassing wart.” Rotenberg had won.

A measure of success.
“Here was an organization that had come into existence a mere two weeks prior to the campaign,” says Rotenberg. “Now it has presence and credibility among Minnesota’s opinion elite, and as a result has the ability to do a lot more good.” MAT has been so well received that its founders were invited to speak—along with the current governor and attorney general—at the 9/11 commemoration at [Minnesota’s] Midway Stadium this past year.

“Although nobody expected it, this campaign demonstrates the fact that it only takes a few people with a good idea well-executed to make a big impact.” Rotenberg couldn’t be more correct. In recognition of her triumph, she was awarded a silver medal in the Issue/Cause Advocacy category at the 2003 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity.

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