National Journal Magazine - PR For Pariahs: ACORN's Long Road Back

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PR For Pariahs: ACORN's Long Road Back
ACORN HAS BEEN CUT OFF BY CONGRESS AND ABANDONED BY ALLIES. IT'S A CAUTIONARY TALE -- AND A COMMUNICATIONS NIGHTMARE. Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009 by Julie Kosterlitz

Just two months ago, officials of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, dared to hope they had put the worst of their problems behind them. Over the previous year, the group had finally faced up to an internal embezzlement scandal by undertaking a major management shake-up and had largely weathered election-year allegations of voter-registration and election fraud. New CEO Bertha Lewis convened an advisory board of liberal luminaries and beefed up the group's public-relations apparatus: Longtime ACORN organizer Brian Kettenring became the group's spokesman, and New York City-based Advance Group was signed up as a PR consultant. Lewis embarked on nearly 40 meetings with journalists to reintroduce the organization. But in mid-September, damning undercover "sting" videos that appeared on the Internet upended the group's efforts. Two conservative muckrakers posing as a pimp and a prostitute went to ACORN offices asking for advice on setting up brothels and cheating on taxes, and secretly taped ACORN employees giving them pointers. Congress was not pleased. Soon after the videos' Internet debut, Republican measures to bar any federal funding for ACORN or its affiliates passed the Democratic-controlled House and Senate by wide margins. (ACORN says that federal funds make up about 10 percent of its $25 million budget.) Despite warnings from congressional advisers that the sanction may be unconstitutional, both chambers renewed the ban when they recently voted to extend a stopgap government funding bill. The release of the videos, Kettenring says, "has been a significant setback. People who worked with us for 10 or 20 years were voting against us." As conservative news and opinion outlets fanned the flames of the scandal, many of the group's other partners and allies raced for the exits. Several liberal foundations revealed that they had already temporarily halted funding, citing the group's financial management woes. The Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service suspended cooperative work with the group. As well, the Bank of America and the Service Employees International Union (a longtime close ally and financial donor) said they had cut off financial support, pending the results of an ACORN-initiated investigation of its own operations by Democrat Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general. The results are expected sometime this month.

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11/6/2009

National Journal Magazine - PR For Pariahs: ACORN's Long Road Back

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Advance Group President Scott Levenson says that his firm and Kettenring have been working overtime to "correct the record" and "expose the agenda" of the conservatives who are attacking ACORN to undermine the progressive movement. Levenson and Kettenring also say they're trying to refocus on ACORN's work to fight predatory lending and prevent foreclosures at the local level. Levenson confesses that the real challenges are "not being on our heels on a constant basis" and overcoming "the chilling effect [that right-wing groups] have had on so many of our allies and surrogates." Veteran Washington lobbyist Robert Raben, who signed on in mid-July to represent ACORN Housing Corp. -- a legally separate offshoot of ACORN -- concurs. In the wake of the video scandal and federal funding ban, Raben says he has been startled by "how viciously the Right has gone after ACORN and how little help [the group] has received from its traditional supporters." The frigid climate around ACORN, however, may be starting to thaw. In late September, the liberal blog Daily Kos argued that the congressional vote posed a troubling threat to free speech. Liberal video pamphleteer Brave New Films released an online campaign in support of ACORN and against the congressional funding ban. The Alliance for Justice, a national association of liberal cause-oriented groups, has conducted a series of meetings and conference calls with members to encourage solidarity on the left. "The climate at the moment is extremely intimidating," said alliance President Nan Aron. "Attacks on one group could be just the tip of the iceberg." Meanwhile, outside damage-control experts say that the organization has made several classic mistakes, including delayed and defensive responses. Suing your antagonists, as ACORN has done with the video makers, is counterproductive, says Democratic PR consultant Don Goldberg of Qorvis Communications. It "makes you look like a bully and extends the public life of the story." Henry Fawell, a Republican communications consultant in the Baltimore office of Womble Carlyle, says that ACORN should have issued a mea culpa. "Showing contrition makes you more human," he said, "and more sympathetic." The two outsiders, however, agree with ACORN's PR team on a few points: The group needs to return the spotlight to its local accomplishments and the sympathetic personal stories of its individual members. "The only way we'll win is by continuing to fight for issues," Kettenring says. "We're going to win this battle in America, not on Fox." All agree that a comeback -- if it's possible -- will require not weeks or months but years.
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11/6/2009