In Depth

Sierra Club Has Message for Media

Granddaddy of U.S. Environmental Movement Provides Help to Journalists

With all the attention the state of Alaska is getting due to the nomination of its governor, Sarah Palin, as the Republican vice presidential candidate, the Sierra Club is getting a lot of calls from TV news organizations for its footage on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—an area in the northeastern part of the state where Gov. Palin supports drilling for oil.

The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest and largest environmental organization, with about 1.3 million members, and it has learned to be very media-savvy to get its message across through multiple communications platforms, particularly on television stations throughout the country.

The efforts fit right in with the part of its mission that calls for educating and enlisting people to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment.

“We are a grass-roots organization with members in every state, so we have the ability to tell stories from a local as well as a national perspective,” said David Willett, national press secretary for the Sierra Club. He runs a media relations staff of nine people based in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., whose job it is to promote environmental stories and to ensure accurate coverage.

In addition to providing B-roll footage to television stations, the media department assists news organizations in finding local experts on environmental issues as well as knowledgeable members of the Sierra Club who can be interviewed on television newscasts.

“One of the advantages of being an environmental group is our stories are told really well with pictures that work very well for TV,” said Mr. Willett. “If our local members are trying to get media coverage on issues that impact their communities, you need to be thinking of pictures. Whenever we’re planning a campaign, what drives it to tell the story on TV drives it everywhere.”

Whether it’s an oil spill with video of birds covered in black muck, or pictures of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that show caribou, polar bears and musk ox in their natural habitat, the video provides an added dimension to storytelling that can otherwise be lost in coverage of policy issues, legislative action and bureaucracy.

Mr. Willett dates the organization’s impact through media to the late 1960s, when it ran a print campaign against building a proposed dam in the Grand Canyon, an idea that was later scuttled because of the public outcry.

Game Changer

The campaign, which ran in The New York Times, changed the way the Sierra Club evolved its public relations efforts.

“It had tremendous impact for the Club, and greatly angered some members of the Senate, who had our tax status investigated, and we were audited by the IRS,” said Mr. Willett. “It changed the way we did everything and we became much more activist. When we succeeded in preventing the dam from being built, it really energized the Club. It showed that they could use media as a tool, like letter-writing campaigns, education and lobbying of Congress.”

The Sierra Club is currently focusing the bulk of its media outreach efforts on the issue of clean energy, which not only is healthy for the environment, but can create new jobs as well.

“The strategy is in finding the right messenger, and an environmentalist is not always the best source,” said Mr. Willett. “With clean energy, we are working with the steelworkers union. We like windmills, and so do they, because they’re built out of steel. When you can translate an issue into a human-interest story that’s about jobs, that works quite well.”

The media strategy often revolves around providing a local angle for whatever story is in the news. “We’re not a Washington think tank, we’re a group with active members in communities around the country,” Mr. Willett said. “While getting national coverage is great, we would just as soon get 20 media hits on local evening newscasts than one big hit.”

Since 1999 the Sierra Club has run its own Los Angeles-based production house, which produces documentaries and also provides underwriting and sponsorship to independent producers for programs on the environment. Several years ago its first big project was co-producing a feature-length documentary on photographer Ansel Adams that aired on PBS’ “American Experience.” The 90-minute program was directed by Ric Burns and earned an Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Silver Baton, a Golden Cine award and a News & Documentary Emmy Award for cultural programming.

Shows at SEJ

Several of its programs will be screened at the SEJ conference, including a show on the land, people and culture of the Appalachians. Another Sierra Club-sponsored television program is launching this month, called “Kilowatt Ours,” a look at energy consumption and efficiency and how people can save energy to lessen the need for new coal-fired power plants.

“We were ahead of the curve in creating a production division, a unique opportunity to create content,” said Adrienne Bramhall, director of Sierra Club Productions. “With online opportunities as well, we are doing good things in using video to communicate. It is an essential tool.”

The overriding goal is to be involved with television and film programming that reflects the Sierra Club’s belief that every person is connected to, inspired by and responsible for the natural world.
Other projects include “Sierra Club Chronicles,” seven half-hour episodes produced by Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films in association with Sierra Club Productions. “The programs capture the extraordinary efforts of people across the country who share a common cause—the fight to protect their families, communities and the lands and livelihoods they love from pollution, corporate greed and short-sighted government policies,” Ms. Bramhall said.

SCP also is underwriting the third season of the Emmy- and Telly Award-winning “Natural Heroes” public television series, now in production. “It’s a magazine-style show about people doing things to help save the planet,” she said. “For everything we’re involved in, it’s critical to reach a broad audience and increase awareness, but the most important thing is that we want to engage them in taking action.”

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