The Role of Public Relations in Politics is a monthly column written by WWPR member Margaret Mulvihill. Her column examines the role of PR in politics through history.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations


Let’s turn this column on its head from being “The role of public relations in politics.” Let’s look at the role of politics in public relations. All of us who have worked for agencies will sigh in understanding! There is no workplace more fraught with politics than the public relations workplace; there is no comparable industry where politics play such an enormous role. However, we’re not going to delve into individual firms – this time.


Instead, let’s look at a very effective public relations campaign which began earlier this year, a very aggressive campaign, waged around a lawsuit in California, which challenged teacher evaluation and tenure. Students Matter, a non-profit founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur, David Welch, hired the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher and the issue advocacy firm of Griffin|Schein. In fact, Students Matter is run from the office of Griffin|Schein. Felix Schein, a former journalist and NBC producer, developed a “communications and advocacy campaign designed to leverage the lawsuit as a platform to reframe the debate around education reform to refocus on protecting the rights and serving the best interests of students.” A mouthful, to be sure, but take a look at Griffin|Schein’s innovative and engaging way of telling the daily story of the trial:


The media blitz, so described by the California Teachers Association President, took the CTA very much by surprise. President Dean Vogel said that they would refuse to fight a communications campaign funded by bottomless pockets. Vogel went on to say that “what people want is not flashy PR but real substantive conversations with teachers that they deal with every day. Our focus is not on the media show, but getting out into the community and engaging with parents and community stakeholders.”


Whether that plan is working for the CTA or not, the PR campaign is doing exactly what it set out to do. It is making the voice of Students Matter heard on a national level. The campaign, described by some as a ‘one-sided communications war’, is changing the way lawsuits in general will be tried in this country. What would have been a quiet case tried in a small Los Angeles courtroom is now on the national radar. The Griffin|Schein PR campaign is now shaping public opinion far beyond the State of California. How did they pull this off?


Well, for starters, a very effective email campaign was put in place long before the trial opened on January 27 of this year. The weekend prior to the start of the trial, a tweet sheet was sent out in an email, with hashtags and twitter handles included. That is powerful communications right there. Griffin|Schein and Students Matter were not just asking people to get involved, they were giving people the tools to get involved in a very meaningful way. Then, just before the trial opened, Students Matter called a press conference to alert the media. They held another press conference on opening day, with all of the students named in the lawsuit in attendance. They were making it real for people. These were no longer mere names on a legal document; here were real students. Real students who matter, and who need your help. Also, not to be overlooked, that morning, Students Matter released a series of emails sent at 5 am. The timing was strategic, as many online news outlets picked up the story.


In a ground-breaking move, a 54-slide PowerPoint was emailed to reporter’s minutes after the trial opened, including a ‘Trial Tracker’ promising daily highlights and footage. At the end of the day, another email went out giving details of the students’ first day in court. As part of the media campaign, the founder of Students Matter, David Welch, published several op-eds in the local press. At the end of that day’s trial an email goes out to reporters every day. Why is that important? Students Matter is crafting the message it wants to be heard, and they are doing it very effectively.

Well, Vergara v. California continues to be a one-sided communications engagement, with neither the CTA nor the State of California countering the Students Matter campaign. CTA President Vogel has accused the non-profit of wanting a court of public opinion trial rather than a courtroom trial. It is possible that Students Matter has gone too far in their effort to control or influence the trial. What do you think?

Margaret Mulvihill is Director of Communications at Lawson Mulvihill in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @LawsonMulvihill