GenEQ Campus Action Tools
Your college or university's LGBT group can be a powerful force for activism within your campus or local community. Any advocacy effort is carefully planned and considered. HRC has produced this guide to various parts of the advocacy process, with a focus on developing a coalition around an issue and using the media to share information about your cause.
- Building a coalition
- Editorials and op-eds
- Letters to the editor
- Reaching out to the media
- Responding to the Westboro Baptist Church
Getting a lot of people involved in your cause will give you clout, provide you with more resources and allow you to put more direct pressure on decision makers. It’s of the most fundamental and rewarding aspects of a successful campaign. Working to secure equal rights for GLBT people appeals to all fair-minded Americans. It can be beneficial when our issues are not seen as simply “gay” issues, but civil rights issues important to people from all walks of life.
What is a coalition?
A coalition is a group of individuals or organizations cooperating to develop and deploy effective strategies for accomplishing a mutual goal.
As a member of the LGBT community on campus you are in the best position to evaluate potential supporters for your issue. No two situations are alike – there is no foolproof recipe for building working relationships with others. Don’t overlook obvious help, but at the same time, think creatively when researching potential allies. Most issues have several different angles – pitch your issue in the light that makes the most sense for the organizations you are trying to work with.
Don’t ignore organizations and individuals merely because you disagree on other issues. A coalition is formed for one purpose. All other agreements or disagreements can and should take a back seat.
The first step is to research your campus and to identify other groups that may be interested in joining your efforts. Consider groups based on whether they have a stake in your issue. Don’t overlook campus chapters of national organizations or nearby High School Gay-Straight Alliances who may be interested in your cause.
One of your top priorities should be recruiting organizations or individuals with the greatest political influence. If they won’t join, seek their help in the form of behind the scenes backing or individual endorsements
Prepare your pitch before contacting any group. Research the size of the organization, its purpose, activities, officers, and organizational structure. Identify a reliable contact there.
When asking for help, package your request so that your needs mesh with the organization’s current program. Remember that if coalition members help on your issues, they will expect your help on their issues.
Since every group will have different resources, providing a specific list of activities allows them to choose what they feel they can accomplish, rather than turning you down flat for fear of getting in over their heads.
Such a list could include: hosting phone banks, triggering their phone tree, organizing letter writing campaigns, printing and distributing leaflets, publishing stories in their magazine or newsletter, posting on website, sending emails to list serve, featuring on My Space or Facebook, getting names for petitions, sponsoring education programs, helping with a speaker’s bureau, signing on to group letters, talking with or writing to influential administrators or the board of trustees, joining you at a news conference, signing an op-ed, turning out their members for a rally, or hosting a speaker from your organization at their meeting.
One of the most important parts of a smoothly running coalition is communication. Be sure that everyone is communicating the work they are doing with an eye on how to best complement the efforts of others. Don’t forget to thank members of the coalition for their contribution – whether it is time, money or influence.
Give-and-take is another integral part of coalition work since all individuals and organizations in the coalition have their own identity and agenda. It’s important to remember that organizations working together in a coalition may have different purposes and assign different values to LGBT equality. Groups will differ on priorities, strategies, and tactics; those differences can produce internal conflicts. But they can also provide a fertile field of good ideas, different perspectives, and important resources.
A coalition generally operates on consensus, which often can be a challenge. One of the main functions of a coalition is to gather and share information so that all participants gain a clearer understanding of where the issue is and where it is going.
Building a coalition – large or small – can be a crucial step in any successful campaign. It takes tact, hard work, and a little creativity, but is well worth the effort if you want to make things happen for the issues you care about.
Rules for a Coalition
- Clearly define and state your goal.
- Agree on the appropriate steps needed to accomplish your goal.
- Clearly define and assign coalition tasks.
- Fundraising is essential to keep the mail and phone lines running but don’t ignore cost-free ways (internet) of keeping information flowing and communications strong
- Recognize accomplishments and say thanks!
- Establish a procedure for getting clearance on public statements and maintaining communication among member organization.
- You don’t have to agree on everything – just the issue at hand.
Editorials educate a paper’s readers on important issues of the day, shape public attitudes, make or break electoral candidates, and affect key policy decisions. College/University presidents, administration and boards of trustees are sensitive to editorial opinion published in the campus or local paper. Editorials which support your campaign are a valuable resource for the campus activist.
Getting supportive editorials published should be a priority in your campaign’s media strategy. Therefore, it makes sense to try to get the kind of editorial you want early in your efforts. Editorial writers are always looking for ideas and facts; by providing editorial writers with information on your issue, you’re helping them do their jobs.
At larger papers, find out which editorial writer covers LGBT issues and direct your efforts toward her/him. Many local and campus papers, however, have only one editorial writer. Regardless, editorial writers generally have the same responsibility: to lead, reflect upon or add to the body of opinion on local and campus issues.
Here are a few tips for making your editorial meeting a success:
- When you call for an appointment, let them know who is attending and what you want to discuss.
- If you don’t go solo, keep your group small. Consider what each person brings to the group when selecting people to attend.
- Meet as a group ahead of time and figure out who will say what.
- Make your case early in the meeting, and then let the editorial writer(s) ask questions.
- If you are meeting with an editorial board request a list of the attendees in advance so you can research their past stances on your issue.
- Ask when a decision will be made and when or if an editorial will be written.
- Have hard copies of your evidence to provide to the writer, also offer to send it digitally.
- Never stretch the facts or speculate on points you are not sure of, since your credibility is your most precious asset. Guard against false statements, even made innocently. You can always follow up if you don’t have an answer right away.
- Leave you contact information.
- Always reiterate your point at the end of the meeting and thank the writer(s) for their time.
- Follow up with a letter thanking the editorial writer(s) for the meeting and providing any follow up information
If you can get a positive editorial on your issue, you have accomplished a great deal.
- If the editorial supports your cause, photocopy it and add it to your portfolio of media clippings. Be sure your copy includes the paper’s nameplate (top of the front page) from that day – cut and paste if necessary.
- Send it with a cover letter to elected officials.
- Use it to recruit other groups to your issue or coalition.
- Send an original with the paper’s masthead to HRC.
If you don’t get a positive editorial but the paper also doesn’t write a negative piece then consider your efforts successful. It’s just like lobbying elected officials – you may not get them to vote with you but you can get them to not vote against you.
Newspapers also publish editorial articles written by people who are not on the paper’s staff. These are called Opinion-Editorials (op-eds) and usually appear on the page opposite the Editorial Page of the newspaper.
Op-eds are a great way to have your say in a format that allows more detail than a letter to the editor. If your paper editorializes on a subject and you disagree with that opinion, ask for space to publish an alternative view. When writing an op-ed, you should follow the tips on writing a letter to the editor while conforming to the paper’s length limitations.
You can expect the paper to exercise considerable editorial control, not only on length, but on style and content. Make sure you know the paper’s submission deadline.
You can have an op-ed published on a campus, local, state or national issue. Sometimes, HRC will have an op-ed already written about the same issue your campaign is working on. You can ask to have it printed in your paper or modify it to fit your campaign. HRC may also have the latest polling information, research or compelling anecdotes about your issue.
Consider getting a high-profile person from your community who is perceived as a “moderate” to submit the op-ed under their name. It is common practice for a public figure to put his or her name on an op-ed written by a local activist or organization so consider writing it and then approaching the person who you’d like to sign it.
The letters to the editor section of your campus or local paper is an ideal forum for getting your message to its readers – the general public, decision makers and elected officials alike. More people read the letters to the editor section than almost any other part of the paper – it’s the first page many people turn to. Letters to the editor show that an issue is of concern to the community and are excellent tools for education. Here are a few guidelines for getting your letter to the editor printed.
Why and When to send a letter to the editor?
- Use letters to correct inaccuracies or respond to a recent article. Timely letters have the best chance of being printed.
- Use events like Transgender Day of Remembrance, Pride, National Coming Out Day, Women’s History Month, LGBT History Month, etc, as a hook.
- Achieve an objective. Write on behalf of a campus or local organization – this will give your letter more weight. Or you can write as an individual citizen – this will give the impression of community support/opposition to an issue.
- Include your name, address and daytime phone number. Editors like to call to confirm that the letter was actually written by the person whose name appears on the letter.
- Keep it short. Letters should be no longer than 100-150, double spaced.
- Your letter should have the most important message in the first paragraph. Make your argument concise and focused.
- Avoid rambling sentences and big words.
- Be positive. Focus more on presenting a logical and well written argument to the publication’s readers than on being accusatory or condescending to the author.
- Localize your letter – explain how the issue will affect your school or personalize the letter by mentioning how you or those in your community will be affected. Personal stories can also be highly effective in adding “real life” supporting evidence for your argument.
- Ask for a specific action – tell readers what you want them to do. Address those people you are asking to make change directly to get their attention.
Don’t be disappointed if your letter does not get printed. Newspapers get many letters every day and can’t print all of them. Most papers won’t print the same writers over and over again. So if you have had a letter published recently, try to get a friend or co-worker to sign the next one. Have a number of activists submit a letter on the same topic at the same time. Editors are more likely to print letters on popular issues.
Sample Letter to the Editor
Des Moines Register
Feb 28, 2005
It is time Iowans speak up and stop allowing extremists and others who share their bigotry and prejudices to shape the tone and content of the debate over gay rights. The so-called "special rights" that state Senator Steve King and others like to hide behind are an insult to the reality of homosexuality and to the intelligence of the people of Iowa.
"Love the sinner but hate the sin" is just another way to justify one's own bigotry, for it places the need for change on the other person and never on one's self. Iowans need never fear the gay community that is a vital part of our lives. What we must fear and resist is the lack of leadership from those elected to lead.
If there is a threat to our quality of life from a “brain drain” there is also a threat if we allow a “morality drain” from those who cannot or will not stand up and enact moral and just laws for every citizen of Iowa.
M. Babcock, Newton, Iowa 50208-3821
A successful campaign will utilize the media as a method of disseminating information. Articles in newspapers, interviews on the radio and coverage from television stations about your issue are essentially free advertising. But first the media need to know about your events and efforts.
The Media Advisory
A media advisory is a mini news release designed to get reporters to an event rather than tell them the whole story. It should contain just enough information about the event to pique the curiosity of reporters. In order to get TV coverage, it is important to entice the media with an interesting visual presentation, symbolic location or other camera-friendly imagery.
Include in the advisory the “who, what, when where, and why” of the story. A contact name and phone number/email, website, the names of the individuals participating, and the time of day and place (including directions if necessary) are essential to include in your advisory. Print reporters don’t always travel with photographers so you may want to mention good camera opportunities (“good visuals”). Don’t give too much away about the event. Also keep in mind that your opponent will probably receive a copy of this somehow – you may want to consider what you’ll do if they show up to the event.
Find out what form of communication the media outlets prefer and send out the media advisory at least one week before your event. Many print reporters prefer email but there could be smaller media outlets that still prefer to be faxed information. Regardless of delivery a follow up phone call to ensure the advisory was received is appropriate. If you are contacting a print reporter keep in mind that afternoons between 2pm and 5pm are usually dedicated to meeting deadlines – it is best to not call at that time.
The News Release
Writing a good news release is an integral part of getting the media to cover your campaign’s efforts. It needs to be stylistically appealing, professional, and contain no errors. A good press release will deliver your message in a concise and provocative manner.
Quotes are an effective and creative means to achieving this goal. Reaction statements and direct quotes add color – they are the only acceptable way to use subjective language and exclamations. It is also perfectly acceptable to quote yourself or to make up a quote from a leader in your organization or the community – but only if you have her/his permission to do so.
Because many people read just the first paragraph of a story it is recommended that the inverted pyramid style is used to present the most important information at the beginning of the release. Also, if the release is too long for the space available, the editor will cut paragraphs beginning with the last one. Media outlets will often use a well-written news release as the bulk of their story.
A news release has a basic format:
- Logo, letterhead, or heading
- Date of issue
- Release date (“immediate,” or time and date after which it is okay to print the story)
- Contact name, phone number, email and website
- Headline – succinct and informative
- Indent paragraphs five spaces
- Double space
- One and a half inch margin
- When a release runs more than one page, head each page with a shortened version of the headline.
- For a release running more than one page, use the word “more” at the bottom of each page.
- Two ways to mark the end of the release: “-30-” or “###.”
Know which reporters prefer email and which prefer to have a release faxed to them and be aware of the deadlines for all local media organizations.
A press kit was once an important vehicle to pass on important information about your campaign to reporters. But in the era of electronic media the press kit has become stream-lined and a one-pager is sufficient for hard-copy to distribute at your event. The one-pager should include a brief history of your campaign, brief bios of major players, citations for previous articles on your issue, the news release and any other facts or figures about the issue a reporter may find helpful. Make sure your contact information is included – a reporter may have follow up questions while working on her/his story. Be sure to include a link to your website.
The first item to create is the media advisory. This should be written at least four days prior to the event and should be faxed out three days prior to the event. A follow-up call should be made between distribution of the advisory and the event itself. When you call, ask if the reporter has received the advisory and then pitch your story to the reporter.
Next you should create your news release and press kit. Be sure to give yourself enough time when writing your news release that it may be proofread and edited. The press kit is given to the media when they arrive at your event.
The day before the event, you should resend the media advisory.
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is an extremist unaffiliated Baptist church based in Topeka, Kansas. The church was founded in 1956 by Fred Phelps, who remains the leading pastor of the church. The WBC is known for its extreme ideologies, primarily their homophobic views. The Church has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The targets of their protests include the LGBT and ally communities, Jewish people, AIDS patients and service members, often targeting their funerals. WBC also pickets at high schools, college campuses and businesses that are supportive of LGBT equality. In recent years, the Church has expanded their reach to include the entertainment industry, targeting LGBT supporters such as as Taylor Swift and Lady GaGa.
Responding to WBC Pickets
Many communities feel the need to show the WBC that their hateful messages are not welcome. One of the most effective and often used responses is to organize a peaceful counter protest. These protests can be conducted silently. Whatever type of response you decide upon, it is vital that it is non-confrontational and does not directly engage the WBC picketers. This is important because this small congregation provides WBC's funding; the group neither solicits nor accepts outside donations. But in addition to this income, the church makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church and will often have a supporter filming their picket to have evidence should any incidents occur.
Here are examples of successful responses by students:
Progressive organizations have also tackled WBC:
- The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism provides this “How-To” Guide
- The Anti-Defamation League published an official response to the WBC
Counter-protesting the WBC can be enhanced by involving the larger community beyond those directly affected. Building coalitions with local businesses and organizations can heighten the impact and build lasting relationships. Sending a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, emailing your local listserv and utilizing social media are good ways to inform those in your area about what you’re hoping to do.
Sample letter to the editor:
“Dear ____________ (insert name of editor or news source here):
I would like our community to know that the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has announced they will be picketing against ________________ (insert location of protest). If you aren’t aware, the WBC is known for their extreme homophobic ideology and disrespectful protests. You may have heard of their previous activities; they protest on schools and campuses, places of business and at funerals. I want to invite you to join me and others in a peaceful counter protest. Our protest will take place ________________ (insert location of counter protest), on ____________ (insert date). We ask that all who plan on attending our counter protest remain peaceful and do not engage with WBC protesters. We want to send a positive message of inclusion, respect and love to counter their negative, hateful one. For more information, contact _____ (email and/or phone of contact person).
We hope you will join us in showing WBC that this brand of hateful protest is not welcome in our community.
Angel Action began when the WBC announced that they would be picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard. A number of his friends created giant angel wings to shield those attending the funeral from the WBC. The wings also imbue a sentiment of peace and love.
Click here for more info on Angel Action and instructions for making wings.