Earned Media: State Support and The Press Room

Central to winning state campaigns is the need for strong “earned media” capability. Earned media consists of all media the campaign doesn’t directly pay for: newspaper stories, editorials and op-eds, television and radio news coverage, and the like. Given the very high cost of paid advertisements, all campaigns must rely on earned media to drive a narrative forward, accentuate victories, explain losses, and demonstrate forward momentum.  

As a national campaign, Freedom to Marry employed earned media to drive our national narratives of persuasion (loving couples deserve the freedom to marry, etc.), reassurance (America is ready), and urgency (every day of denial is day of injury, injustice, and indignity), while also generating earned media to assist our partners and state campaigns in making the case on the ground and contributing to the national momentum.

The Press Room

Beginning in New York, Freedom to Marry and our partners recognized that a crucial capability in state campaigns that often didn’t exist on the ground - or wasn’t sufficient to drive a state media narrative at the level required to win in a state - was developing and pitching stories for a robust earned media drumbeat. In New York, our joint campaign - New Yorkers United for Marriage - set out on an ambitious goal to garner an earned media story of one sort or another on every day of the campaign. It could be a poignant story of the harms of a couple denied the freedom to marry, an unexpected voice registering support, the endorsement of a business or a union, or the like. Generating these stories required two crucial elements - organizing teams on the ground generating the content - finding the couple, enlisting the business or the union, etc. - and a strong media team with expertise in packaging a story for reporters and pitching and placing the story. In New York, the campaign hired a firm to help us guide the earned media strategy, but as we built campaigns moving forward, Freedom to Marry built the internal capacity to support local campaign efforts with earned media through what we called The Press Room.    

Freedom to Marry created The Press Room to harness the power of “free” or “earned” media to build and amplify the strong narrative that the entire country - including the still-contested regions - is ready for the freedom to marry. We focused our work on key circuits to maximize the climate for appellate judges, on key regions - especially the South - where the case needed to be made most strongly; and on the national drumbeat for decision-makers throughout the country, including the Supreme Court.

The Press Room consisted of a high-caliber team of communications strategists to secure and shape positive coverage and drive the marriage narrative across the country.

The goal was to demonstrate to decision makers - judges, elected officials, etc. - that momentum is palpable and the country is ready for national resolution. It also highlighted the harms of those left behind in the 31 states where the freedom to marry was barred, and the irrationality of the patchwork. The Press Room worked with local campaigns that we had set up collaboratively to map an earned media plan. The plans included identifying compelling news hooks, pitching stories, drafting op-eds, providing rapid response and message/media training, and pushing back on the opposition as necessary, while ensuring integration with our national and state-based social media efforts. The Press Room was constantly on the lookout for stories that rise to the level of being compelling to national reporters, which it then pitched aggressively.    

An Example of Freedom to Marry’s Integrated Campaign in Action—The Tenth Circuit 

From December 20, 2013 - when the Utah federal district court ruled in favor of the freedom to marry - to the present, we were hard at work throughout the circuit to identify strong messengers and compelling stories and pitch them locally, regionally and nationally to create the best climate for a victory in that circuit while demonstrating nationally that America is ready.   

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker

Enlisting strong supporters – like Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker – in state-level work yielded great opportunities to encourage local reporters to write about the freedom to marry and contextualize state fights in a national framework.

Utah: After the ruling, and once stays were denied, we knew we had a powerful opportunity to create a narrative that even in Utah - the home of the LDS Church - the freedom to marry was supported and not terribly controversial. If marriages could go off without much of a hitch in Utah, it would be much easier to argue that it could happen that way anywhere.  

Equality Utah, a strong organization with a talented executive director, was in great need of communications help both in the immediate-term and the longer-term. Freedom to Marry deployed Mary Breslauer, a long-time, high-level media specialist, to Utah to support Equality Utah in rapid response and to ensure that spokespeople were “on message” and were strong, effective messengers. 

Over the course of several weeks, Freedom to Marry worked with Equality Utah to build out a coalition campaign, Utah Unites for Marriage, hiring organizers to grow support and identify compelling stories and strong spokespeople. Our Digital Action Center designed a website, created Facebook and Twitter properties, and developed and circulated online content. The results were strong (sample articles below): the campaign recruited and media trained three powerful spokespeople to serve as co-chairs of Utah Unites for Marriage: the Republican former US attorney for Utah, a television reporter who is one of Utah’s most familiar and beloved faces, and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker.

We also raised funds for a television ad featuring a large Mormon family where one of the adult children is gay.  Our Press Room pitched it, and it garnered both local and national earned media coverage in addition to running throughout Utah with a paid buy.  

Coverage highlights

Salt Lake Tribune, Op-ed: This mayor will never forget the day gay marriage arrived
Deseret News, Same-sex marriage advocates making more noise than traditional marriage supporters
Deseret News, Ad campaign advocating same-sex marriage in Utah launches Tuesday
Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City motorists honk support for gay marriage rally 
Salt Lake Tribune, Utahns give heartfelt send-off to couples in gay marriage case

Colorado: This is where the Tenth Circuit sits, home to the greatest number of judges. We worked closely with One Colorado, a state organization with strong capacity and relationships, to quickly create a coalition campaign, Why Marriage Matters Colorado, and enlist existing field staff of One Colorado to identify messengers and develop content as well as communications staff to help with the pitching to key reporters in the state. The Digital Action Center built a website and led all online work (as it did - and continues to do - in Wyoming and Oklahoma as well). And we worked with One Colorado staff to identify strong subjects for a television spot highlighting a gay veteran with several straight veterans who all make the case for why their friend should be able to marry. This ran statewide around oral arguments.  

Coverage highlights

Colorado Independent, Gay-rights group preps ground for court cases with Denver TV ad buys
Denver Post (AP), Republican group shows support for gay marriage
Fox 31, Veterans Take Gay Marriage Push to Airwaves

Wyoming: Knowing our litigation-partner, NCLR, would be filing a case here, we hired organizers and launched a branded campaign, Wyoming Unites for Marriage, with existing advocates. Through that work, we recognized what a powerful messenger former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) - a Republican amicus brief signer - would be region-wide and nationally. He personified the western values of freedom and, as he put it, “the right to be left alone.” Freedom to Marry arranged to shoot a television spot with him and did a nationwide television buy focused on DC, Wyoming, and the Tenth Circuit. As important as the investment in paid advertising was the earned media The Press Room generated from the ad.  

Coverage highlights

Casper Star Tribune, Op-Ed: Lawmakers: Gay marriage fits Republican values
Casper Star Tribune, Coming to local TV: Al Simpson stars in same-sex marriage commercial
WyoFile, Wyoming same-sex marriage case rests on state constitution 
Casper Star Tribune, 50-plus Wyoming attorneys attach names to pro-gay marriage website

Oklahoma and Kansas: The movement’s on-the-ground capacity in both states was limited. Freedom to Marry prioritized Oklahoma, because it was home to one of the Tenth Circuit cases, hired an organizer, and built a campaign, Freedom Oklahoma, in partnership with the existing state group. We also shot an ad with a lesbian couple and their parents and children, which gained both statewide and national press. 

Coverage highlights

Oklahoman, Rural Oklahoma family featured in television ad supporting same-sex marriage
9News, Veterans stand up for marriage equality
NewsOK, Oklahoma same-sex marriage case to be argued in Denver this week

Throughout the Tenth Circuit, we partnered closely with NCLR, the co-counsel in the Utah case, and took the lead in pitching stories about signers on newsworthy amicus briefs. Together, we launched www.10thcircuit.org as a one-stop-shop for reporters who wanted information about the cases.  

Key Lessons Learned

  • Support state campaigns in securing earned media. Many state campaign efforts do not have strong earned media expertise; as a result it can be exceedingly helpful to support those campaigns by helping devise ideas of what would make for a strong earned media story; help organizers and campaign leaders build out the concept to maximize likelihood that it will be a story; and then pitch and secure placement for the story. Our building The Press Room made a serious and tangible difference in securing earned media in state and regional efforts.  
  • You can use small amounts of paid media and leverage them to secure significant amounts of earned media. We knew it would be far too costly to make national media buys that would be seen enough on television to penetrate a market. Thus, we often created television spots that had real news value and did a “national buy” - ran the ad on Sunday television news shows in DC along with cable news shows nationwide - and then pitched the ad for news coverage to top outlets.  We did this especially well with our ad featuring former GOP Senator Alan Simpson; with a relatively small ad buy, we were able to get the ad covered in national print media and shown and discussed on national cable news.  
The Cuyler Family

The Cuyler Family was featured in one of Freedom to Marry's ads out of Oklahoma. A small TV buy led to massive amounts of earned media, with blogs, reporters, and even TV networks featuring the Oklahoma family's sweet message.

  • Cultivate relationships with national reporters covering your cause. With the support of media consulting firms, Freedom to Marry put together off-the-record briefings with top Supreme Court and political reporters and columnists for the crucial national outlets - New York Times, Politico, Washington Post, network news stations, NPR, CNN, etc. We often did these at restaurants, where reporters could hear our perspective, ask questions, and have good back and forth. Those “salons” were invaluable, as when the battles got hot, the reporters would often reach out to Freedom to Marry first, for comment or explanation.  
  • Be the go-to source of information for reporters. For national movements with multiple state “fronts” in the fight, it is challenging for reporters to stay up to speed on developments. As a result, if you can be the go-to source for information, that can ensure that your group - and your perspective - are quoted more frequently. Freedom to Marry became that resource for reporters coving dozens of legal cases challenging marriage bans in multiple states across the country. We not only provided up-to-date information online on each case, but also aggregated and presented the information for quick reference for reporters.  
  • Use news hooks creatively to pitch your stories. Reporters are very focused on ensuring news coverage syncs up with what is “hot” nationally. That means that, when your cause isn’t front and center, it’s very important to think creatively of ways to inject it into the prevailing media narrative. We did that in 2012, when Freedom to Marry launched our "Democrats: Say I Do” effort to get a marriage plank in the Democratic National Convention platform. We knew that the nominating process would be undramatic, given that President Obama was running unopposed.  And we knew that reporters would be searching for electorally focused stories. As a result, our push to secure a freedom to marry plank in the platform garnered very significant amounts of earned media - on national Sunday morning television shows and in top political media outlets. From reporting after the fact, we know that the effort had - as intended - an impact in speeding along President Obama’s “evolution” on marriage and that his accelerated timing was largely the result of the media attention our push was getting (in tandem we and others were making with the Administration internally).
From The Atlantic

The Marriage Plot: Inside This Year's Epic Campaign for Gay Equality

In this 2012 article, Molly Ball of The Atlantic writes about Freedom to Marry's ambitious strategy to win marriage nationwide.

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  • On a limited basis, use earned media to demonstrate your organization’s value-add. Freedom to Marry always prioritized winning over organizational public relations.   At the same time, it’s important for an organization’s donors as well as other influential people who are paying interest to the cause – to know the role that you are playing.  One powerful way to demonstrate that leadership is by working closely with a reporter on an “embargoed” in-depth story, showing the role that you are playing.  Freedom to Marry did this on a couple of occasions, none more successful than inviting The Atlantic to have insider’s access into our work on the 2012 ballot campaigns. Molly Ball’s resultant story did a powerful job of showing our leadership over several years in preparing for, and securing, wins at the ballot in 2012.