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Savvy PR firms drive coverage of HHS mandate

I'm going to back into the media analysis here by mentioning that there is a very media-savvy, progressive public relations non-profit called Faith in Public Life. The Washington Post describes the group as one of several organizations that "that meld religion and liberal politics" and the group itself describes its work here:

Faith in Public Life provides strategic media guidance for broad-based issue campaigns, individual faith leaders, and national, state and local groups. We help our partners think through communications goals and implement communications plans tailored to meet those goals. On any given effort, our work could include:

developing and disseminating strategic messaging designing paid-media campaigns (i.e. newspaper or radio ads) building tailored press lists by media market, city, or area of coverage identifying and training key clergy spokespeople for media appearances and public events writing and distributing media advisories and press releases pitching and booking spokespeople to broadcast media crafting, editing and/or placing opinion pieces conducting new-media outreach via blogs and social media sharing information via Facebook or Twitter advising on tactics, and strategy for media events (press conferences, prayer vigils, rallies, etc.)

In addition to advising partners on planned, pro-active campaigns, FPL also closely monitors the news cycle for moments of opportunity. When news breaks, we can respond within hours, inserting voices from the faith community into coverage while the story is still developing.

FPL also provides media, communications and messaging trainings to a range of audiences, such as politically active clergy and faith-based organizers working on key issue priorities across the country. FPL provides tailored curricula, presents highly effective messages, and helps leaders practice and develop their skills. Trainings can focus on organizing events that earn media coverage, talking to print and TV reporters, and developing cohesive and powerful messaging.

By deploying sound strategies and industry best practices, we have been able to amplify the faith community’s moral witness on important issues such as climate change, immigration reform and health care.

It was formed in the aftermath of the 2004 exit polls showing that values voters played a role in John Kerry's loss to George W. Bush. It's very well funded (including by the obligatory Open Society Institute of George Soros). And Faith in Public Life has been doing a ton of work with their partners in support of Obamacare, among other progressive issues. This 2009 990 says, for instance, that it's affiliated Action Fund "placed organizers in five key states to organize for health care reform."

When the HHS mandate requiring religious groups to fund various things they doctrinally oppose, Faith in Public Life worked with reporters to advocate for their particular political take on things. I learned about this the same way I learn about a lot of things: CNN's BeliefBlog. Dan Gilgoff wrote about how liberal Catholic activists were working to fight the bishops on the mandate. In this snippet below, you can see how Faith in Public Life works -- pushing out a carefully calibrated quote via email timed for the right moment, following up with a call with a particularly well chosen spokesperson. The overall campaign could probably be called "Catholic Bishops Losing Credibility on Religious Liberty Campaign."

Another Washington-based Catholic operative, John Gehring, e-mailed reporters over the weekend to knock the bishops for criticizing President Barack Obama, even after his administration revised its contraception rule Friday to mandate that insurers – not Catholic institutions – pay for birth control coverage.

“You have to ask why the bishops can’t take yes for an answer,” wrote Gehring, who works with the progressive group Faith in Public Life.

On Wednesday, Gehring helped organize a call with reporters to discuss a congressional hearing this week at which some bishops are expected to testify against the contraception rule. “I believe everything my church teaches,” Nicholas Cafardi, a prominent Catholic lawyer, said on the call, voicing support for the birth control rule. ” I don’t consider this as a question of dogma, but of how we apply Catholic teaching in the real world.”

Faith in Public Life notes on its web site, dryly, "FPL did reporter outreach following the HHS contraception accommodation."

And, indeed, this public relations campaign has been a wild success. They deserve major kudos. They are but one of many groups working to frame this issue as "bishops lose credibility on 'religious liberty' campaign," but the overall work of these groups can be seen in most broadcast and print media outlets.

You might compare that with how a reporter recently asked me for names of women who could speak on recent Catholic issues such as Sister Maureen Fiedler's book review from the Vatican, the HHS mandate and what not. I'm not Catholic but I know some Catholics and I ended up giving her a dozen or so names of some great sources (feel free to hit me up if you need any help on this).  I have to assume that the people fighting the mandate have some type of public relations campaign going on but considering that I learned about the most recent religious freedom rallies held nationwide last Friday hours before they began, I'm assuming it's not at the caliber of what we're seeing elsewhere. Some public relations campaigns are better than others. And yes, you can moan and groan about how reporters are too willing to adopt PR campaign framing and sources, but you try writing three stories a day and then get back to us.

So I'm not even really complaining when I point out this Mitchell Landsberg story in the Los Angeles Times that has been carried in papers across the country. The headline in the Times is "Are Catholic bishops abandoning nonpartisanship in contraception battle?"

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have long prided themselves on being political without being partisan, throwing themselves into the scrum of public affairs without aligning themselves with one party or the other.

Now, some Catholics are beginning to wonder out loud whether the bishops have abandoned their historic non-partisanship - or, at least, are at risk of being seen that way - as they press forward with a vigorous campaign against contraception provisions in President Barack Obama's health care plan.

Later we're told that "some liberal and moderate Catholics are uncomfortable" with blending politics and religion. So probably these "some Catholics" wouldn't be anyone at a group that blends liberal politics and religion, right?

"I think the real danger bishops need to confront is getting this dragged through the political mud just a few months before an election," said John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life a liberal, faith-based advocacy group. "I think some of the alarmist rhetoric that some church leaders are using gives the impression that some bishops are quite happy making this part of a Republican campaign."

Gehring said there was a risk that the bishops could come to be seen as "the Republican Party at Prayer" - which, he stressed, he does not believe is the case.

Give Gehring a raise! The rest of the article is fine, even accurately explaining both the mandate and the response to the mandate.

Anyway, there have been so many people complaining to GetReligion about the framing of this story and the general lack of balance in the coverage, from the very first days that the Catholic bishops began their campaign against the HHS mandate. Sometimes it's worth complaining less and thinking about what reporters need to do their job.

Again, we're talking about people who are under enormous pressure, frequently writing multiple stories a day, and dealing with very complex issues throughout the week. It's nice when a PR professional can deliver you an angle, a framing device, some quotes and much of what else you need.

That doesn't sufficiently explain why we're still seeing the use of the same framing months on end, but there are probably other factors playing into that as well.

Public relations image via Shutterstock.

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