Building Public Will with a Little Help from the Fourth Estate

By: Anneliese M. Bruner

BUFFALO, NY — Recent efforts by KLCC Fellows in Buffalo to reinvigorate local voters and boost long-term participation in the electoral process have featured a strong media campaign. The enthusiastic response by reporters, editors and producers to the fellows’ Your Voice, Your Choice (see cover story) campaign has generated a flurry of news coverage, resulting in widespread public awareness about the effort. The experience is affirming fellows’ belief that crafting a role for the press, also known as the fourth estate of American democracy, is a useful, if not essential, part of grass-roots organizational efforts to build public will and effect positive social change.

The strong media push stemmed from the fellows’ acknowledgment early on that they needed to get a broad range of people to the table in a relatively short period of time. They also knew they had a limited budget. Voters in this city of ethnically divided communities have an unfortunate history of relying on a narrow band of individuals and organizations to tell them how to vote. The fellows aimed to change that by reminding voters that the opinions of each individual matter, especially when it comes to education issues. But pulling that off in a city where only about 4 percent of eligible voters participated in the last local election would be no easy feat.

Determined, the fellows chose a news conference as the forum at which to launch the “Your Voice, Your Choice” campaign. The centerpiece of the initiative is the creation of a voter’s checklist defining the qualifications residents feel candidates for the upcoming school board election should possess. The fellows had only three weeks to generate enough public interest to have a meaningful public forum on the subject.

To make this happen, they used network and public access television, radio, and print media to publicize their message. They also met with the Buffalo News editorial board, where the journalists offered to pick up the story and provide the public with regular updates on the initiative’s progress. This was especially exciting since, according to fellows, local community news usually generates little enthusiasm at the paper.

Direct-action organizing also is playing a tremendous role in publicity for the initiative. The fellows have met with community groups and used tools such as spider diagrams to identify the connections people in the community have to their neighbors, friends and other groups with which they’re affiliated. The lists compiled from these meetings have made the contact network very broad. In order to motivate people to attend the forum, fellows sent out announcements and invitations, made personal phone calls, contacted churches, and placed flyers at YWCAs and other venues. These efforts resulted in a packed house the day of the forum, lending further credibility to the campaign, providing great images for televised media, and energizing those who attended to go home and encourage others to get involved.

In addition to generating public interest in the campaign and putting would-be candidates on notice, the media exposure generated by “Your Voice, Your Choice” has given the KLCC fellows a higher profile in the community. This elevated platform not only affords them the opportunity to draw attention to the work they’re doing to change their community, from the bottom up, but to also invite the community to rewrite its own destiny.

Dec. 6, 2005

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