Voices for Civil Justice, funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and others, and headed by Martha Bergmark, has done amazing work in terms of getting the access to justice messave out at the national level.
They have had a hand in 250 placements of media coverage about civil legal aid in more than 80 national and significant regional outlets. This has included multiple placements in prominent outlets including the New York Times (19 pieces), NPR, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, CBS Evening News, PBS NewsHour, and The New Yorker. They have built a 1,000-member, 50-state network of media spokespeople. Clips are here.
But progress is less dramatic in terms of the state ATJ programs of all kinds rising to the challenge and developing the capacity to do this on their own. In the end, such local capacity is far more effective, not only because it simply provides better content, but because it builds the local relationships that can be called on in moments of challenge and crisis.
To be specific, based on a survey conducted by Voices with over 300 responses from 47 states:
- At the organizational level, 32% of respondents organizations had communications plans, significantly up from 2o14 when the number was only 26%.
- But, at the statewide level, the story is not so good. Only 3.5 percent of statewide entities (e.g. Access to Justice commissions, IOLTA funders) said their state has a written, coordinated communications plan. (Its a little better that 29% have a written plan for specific initiatives such as fundraising and legislative advocacy, but that should be 100% already.)
I suspect that the reason is that only one third of state entities have staff or consultants working on communications, and I suspect that most of those have many other tasks. This work is too easy to put to the back of the pile — at least unless there is an urgent nudge e-mail from Voices in your inbox!
At the organizational level, the the percentage with staff assigned has stayed the same since 2014, but there has been a 6 percent increase in organizations devoting 50-100% FTE to communications, a 4 percent increase in organizations devoting 101-150% FTE to communications; and a 3.5 percent increase in organizations devoting 201% FTE or more to communications. These higher numbers would help explain the existance of the plans.
This just underlines how far we have to go in getting capacity to be built at the statewide and multi-stakeholder level. Obviously, this parallels the many other capacity areas in which so much needs to be done.
While the challenges of messaging are now more complex than ever, this is not the time to be frightened of telling those aspects of our story that have universal or near universal appeal.
I have found the support and guidance from Voices to be key when talking to the media. Their ongoing interest in reports and willingness to give feedback is also outstanding. I think all programs working on improving ATJ in the US and territories should know that they can reach out to Voices at any point in the communication cycle. They are experts in this field–and they are very open and clear when they share their expertise.
I agree in developing the local capacity in the communications arena. Since 2005 or so I have believed that every large legal aid program or statewide groups need to have communications staff and resources. This could be a shared resource–where they bring in a communication expert that knows the legal aid groups enough to be able to identify the good stories to tell depending on the context–and then works to place those stories out.
It would be interesting to know if there is a calendar of national events that could help create momentum for particular news cycles, like for example celebration of relevant national holidays (MLK, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving)–and other calendars that are community based (for example DV awareness month, Hispanic Heritage month, etc) and funding and similar type regular seasons, with suggested topics.