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Jennifer Cunningham On Marriage Equality Campaign in PR Week

SKDKnickerbocker Managing Director Jennifer Cunningham explains, in an article in PR Week, the importance of the powerful messaging used during the New York marriage equality campaign.

A simple, powerful message fueled an historic day for the LGBT community
By Jennifer Cunningham

The gay rights movement was born, many believe, on June 29, 1969, during the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village. Nearly 32 years later to the day, New York was the site of what some say is the second biggest moment in the history of gay and lesbian rights – the passage of same-sex marriage in the third most populated state in the US.

The battle illustrates some key tenets of our trade, namely the value of research-driven message discipline, rigorous third-party organization, and good old-fashioned organizing.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY). Thanks to his leadership, unusual constituents united in a new coalition, New Yorkers United For Marriage, composed of LGBT advocates, business leaders, clergy, labor unions, and supportive elected officials.

This newly branded coalition was truly united, both in its goals and the campaign execution – right down to coordinating responses to every single press call. We managed common talking points, daily conference calls, a proactive press and paid communications plan, and the strategic use of third-party validators and good policy analysts. Lobbyists on the ground in Albany talking to senators helped tie the pieces together for the win.

Naturally, such a unified front of advocates is worth little without research-driven messaging and the relentless discipline to stick to a winning message. So rather than talk in terms of civil rights, we relied on a much simpler concept: Every person should be allowed to marry the individual they love.

It was an aspirational and hopeful message. We deliberately did not vilify the other side – nor did we take the bait when goaded – but continuously stuck to the powerful message that played best with voters.

That message resonated with the press and the public, generating dozens of favorable editorials, as well as television and print stories featuring same- sex couples telling their tales and hundreds of thousands of direct contacts from constituents to key state senators, whether emails, phone calls, postcards, or lobby visits.

In the end, this incredible groundswell won the battle and a bipartisan majority of senators passed the bill.

The campaign was truly a lesson in how rigorous coordination, a relentless message, and organizing discipline can yield spectacular – and in this case, historic – results.

Jennifer Cunningham is Managing Director of SKDKnickerbocker.

A version of this article appeared in the August 1, 2011 print edition of PR Week.