Spitfire Strategies

One Year Since Snowden: Lessons on Keeping Issues in the Headlines

One year ago today, Edward Snowden revealed that almost every innocent, law-abiding person is being tracked by NSA surveillance programs. Since then, Snowden managed to make “privacy” Dictionary.com’s word of 2013, keep privacy in the headlines every day and probably make you feel like the NSA is watching your every move.

While Snowden helped draw national attention to Internet privacy, a coalition of advocates and technology companies are to thank for getting real reform in motion. Spitfire helped guide the coalition’s strategy and communication efforts over the last year, and on this significant anniversary we’d like to share some of our own revelations. Below you’ll find our secrets of successful media relations on complicated, heated issues:

  1. Position your organization as an expert voice. While Snowden’s name was mentioned in almost every privacy story in the last year, he has not taken part in many media interviews. This void allowed Spitfire to position other expert voices to provide commentary and analysis about the NSA’s secret spy programs, and to pivot the conversation to specific legislative reforms needed to protect Americans’ privacy. Regardless of your issue and how talkative the main players are, journalists are always looking for alternative perspectives and deep analysis
  2. Look for ways you can serve as a resource. Since the first revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program, we started tracking every poll about Americans’ attitudes toward privacy. Reviewing over 70 polls, we found that for the first time since September 11, Americans are more worried about civil liberties abuses than terrorism. We compiled these stats and sent them to reporters who were about to cover President Obama’s first speech on NSA reforms in January. A range of news outlets incorporated the polling trends in their coverage, including Politico, The Guardian and The Hill. Think about all of the materials you can provide to journalists to help them get smart on complicated issues or provide context in their articles.
  3. Build long-term relationships with reporters. Spitfire monitored daily news coverage to develop a comprehensive media list of reporters who cover Internet privacy issues, ranging from tech policy reporters to White House correspondents and feature writers. We kept an eye on the types of stories they covered and shared relevant, succinct pitches. This investment paid off in repeated coverage and we now receive incoming calls from journalists asking us who the best source is for a specific topic.
  4. Anticipate and frame news cycles. For example, we prepped advocates to write statements before President Obama’s speech so they could make tweaks as needed during his speech and circulate statements to reporters immediately after. As a result, outlets such as the Washington Post and NPR  framed their stories in terms of what the President failed to do, rather than solely what he said.
  5. Identify unlikely allies. From our polling research, we found that support for government surveillance reform is strongly bipartisan. Spitfire identified and partnered with conservative organizations to draft messages that would activate tea party members and Libertarians on surveillance issues. We then developed tailored opinion pieces to activate conservative policymakers, including placing an op-ed in the local paper of a conservative U.S. Congressman, helping convince him to bring pivotal legislation to a committee vote.
  6. Protect your privacy! This isn’t a media relations tip, but one of the biggest takeaways from our work on surveillance reform is that you should learn how to protect your online accounts and information, and pay attention to those privacy policies! Want to take action on the Snowden anniversary and learn how you can protect your privacy? Check out Reset the Net!

“This truly is the gold standard of executive training.  I have benefited greatly.”

- Roland Stringfellow, Director of Ministerial Outreach, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies

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