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Sierra Club not just commenting on the news, but making it

By Zachary Roth
Sierra Club Media Team

"Feedlot Perils Outpace Regulations, Sierra Club Says"1
"The Sierra Club Criticizes Ford's Chief in a Campaign for Fuel-Efficient Cars"2
"Sierra Club Assails Thune on Water Issues"3

We've all grown accustomed over the years to seeing the Club's name in print. But what's different about the three headlines above, as well as scores of others over the past year, is that now the Club isn't just commenting on the news, it's making it. Whether we were turning the environment into a key issue in Senate races around the country, challenging American automakers to build cleaner cars, or highlighting the dangers of factory farms, the media coverage the Club received reflected its status as a major player in a range of environmental stories throughout the year.

We Couldn't Have Said it Better Ourselves: New York Times story on August 13 and follow-up editorial on August 30 help make the case for stronger animal factory standards.
Of course, it's easier to attract media attention when you've got something positive to say. An October 7 article in PRWeek magazine commented that "the Sierra Club's message definitely speaks loudly, thanks to its solutions-driven focus which places people before protests."4 We're not above a good protest or two, but perhaps PRWeek was onto something here: fairly or not, environmentalists are often seen as being long on dire warnings of impending catastrophe, but short on practical solutions or alternatives. The more we present our work as positive, optimistic ideas for the future, rather than backward-looking attempts to cling to the past, the better we do in the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public. On a number of fronts, the Club's campaigns-and the media coverage they generated-reflected this understanding. Here are two examples:

When the timber industry got together with the Bush administration and a group of anti-environment lawmakers, to use this summer's spate of forest fires as an excuse to gut crucial forest protections, the Sierra Club responded. But though it stood firm against industry efforts to log vast new swathes of forest land, the Club also offered a proactive plan for the future, centered on the need to protect communities and homes from the risk of fire.

The proposal was unveiled in Portland, Oregon, just 24 hours before the president introduced his own misleadingly-named "Healthy Forests" initiative. The Club's proposal generated a slew of headlines immediately. It helped the public understand that, unlike our proposal, the president's plan would allow logging in remote areas far from homes and communities, doing little to make people safer but a lot to line the pockets of the timber industry. When legislation based on the Bush administration's industry-friendly plan came before lawmakers this fall, our supporters in Congress opposed it. The struggle is far from over, but the crucial forest protections that "Healthy Forests" aimed to destroy are still in place.

A similar scenario unfolded in the fight for cleaner cars. When Congress caved to the auto industry and rejected raising fuel-economy standards earlier this year, the Sierra Club took matters into its own hands. In June we went to Detroit to tout the "Freedom Option Package"-a set of existing fuel-saving technologies that could quickly be added to most standard cars, trucks, and SUVs, and which would cut pollution, reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, and save consumers money at the gas pump. The idea was that American automakers could keep offering their most popular and profitable models, while also giving consumers the choice to drive more fuel-efficient cars.

The Club's message registered concern not only with protecting the environment, but also with preserving jobs, offering more choices for consumers, easing our dependence on foreign oil, and ensuring that the U.S. auto industry keeps pace with fast-moving foreign competition. And that made it much harder for automakers to ignore the Club and the wave of media coverage the campaign received. Later in the summer, Ford announced that it would phase out its gas-guzzling Expedition, and hinted that it might not challenge a landmark auto emissions law in California. As with protecting our forests, we're getting farther with positive ideas and solutions than with protests and invective.

The Sierra Club's coverage in the news media accomplished other goals as well. The attention generated by our voter education campaigns established the Club as a significant player in several key election races this year. In Oregon, Colorado, and New Hampshire, candidates vied to see who could appear greener. It sometimes seemed that the environment was the only issue in the race, thanks in no small part to the Club's efforts. Often in these campaigns, we released paid television or radio spots which generated their own media coverage, earning a bigger bang for our buck than the ads alone.

This summer's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg helped establish the Sierra Club around the world as the leading domestic critic of the Bush administration's dismissive approach to the Summit. President Bush didn't bother to attend, but the Club did, and was quoted widely in newspapers from Scotland to Australia. Our media work at the Summit conveyed to the rest of the world that there are Americans who understand that environmental progress and economic development could go hand in hand.

A wide range of Sierra Club issues, both local and national, received media attention this year. The amount and quality of the coverage the Club generates is a testament to the combined work of our many parts. Activists in the field-both volunteers and staff-are on the front-lines of the issues that make headlines, and it's often thanks to their efforts that the Club's role is considered important in the first place.

And you must be doing something right when even your staunchest opponents are generating favorable publicity for you. After his proposal to destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was decisively rejected, a frustrated Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) acknowledged in a televised interview: "What this really boiled down to was the power and influence of America's environmental community, and they frankly did not budge on this issue."5 Thanks, senator, we couldn't have put it better ourselves!

Citations:
1 New York Times, 8/13/02
2 New York Times, 6/13/02
3 Associated Press, 9/5/02
4 PRWeek, 10/7/02
5 press conference, 4/19/02


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