Lessons from a successful media campaign

When I met Monia Mazigh in 2003, she was a dignified, immensely worried lone campaigner for her husband's release.

On September 25, 2002, Maher Arar left his wife Monia, their 5-year old daughter Barâa and 7-month baby son Houd in Tunisia, where they were vacationing on her side of the family. He had to return to work in Canada. The rest of the family would return later. They bade him farewell and he took a taxi to the airport.

This was the last time Monia and the kids saw him for over a year.

Maher Arar was pulled aside during his stopover in New York, while waiting for his connecting flight to Canada. He was interrogated for hours, detained incognito, and then "renditioned" (sent secretly) to Syria, where he was tortured and held for 10 months and 10 days in a tomb-like cell where rat packs would run, and cat pee would rain from an opening in the ceiling.

It was a slow buildup. First there was radio. Then a news headline in the local paper. Then more. National radio. Then national news, and eventually huge headlines around the world. It was only after the most intense media campaign that Maher Arar was finally brought back to Canada, and this, despite aggressive lobbying against his return and dirty tricks from security agencies.

His case has since become a true "cause célèbre".

Maher Arar was released on October 6, 2003, with news coverage live from the airport, followed by front page news everywhere, for days. As I was driving Maher and Monia back to Ottawa, he still could not believe how huge and pressing the media interest was in his story. You just don't follow the news from a Jordanian dungeon, it seems.

Although I was by no means its main architect, this has been the most fascinating, fast-paced media campaign I have had the privilege of playing a part in so far. Here are some of the lessons I drew from being steeped in the day to day unraveling of that work.

Decide what you want. You should know what major step you seek, or policy change you want. Define your objective and stick to it. That's your nail. Stay on message. Hit it as often and as hard as you can. Streamline your moves and define one angle for the day, towards your objective. When Maher first told his horrendous story, he ended it with a call for a government inquiry into what happened. The press knew where to take their questions next. Obtaining a Royal Commission of Inquiry was a major strategy choice. Clearing Maher Arar's name was key objective. Preventing it from ever happening again was the end goal.

Never lie or exaggerate. Stick to the facts. Don't even speculate. Monia and other spokespeople were often asked who they thought was responsible, whether this or that agency was involved, etc. The answer would often start with "Well, I don't really know about this -- and would love to know..." Then back on the nail: the inquiry.

Restricting access can build credibility. After Maher Arar landed and appeared briefly, we insisted Maher wait one month before formally addressing the media. He had to take care of himself first. He had to prepare. When he finally spoke, the anticipation had grown so much the whole event was covered live across Canada. The whole 20-minute press conference was then replayed in full during the evening news. I had never seen anything like this.  

Be a resource. Building a relationship with journalists takes time. You're there to help them. It's a two-way street. Your goal is to become a real resource. Be willing to brief many many journalists, and at length, repeatedly. Do not even expect to be quoted.

Put yourself in their shoes. Think as if you were the reporter. Know you're dealing with someone on tight deadlines. Make it easy. Develop the background material. For Maher Arar and his complex story, we spent days building a fact-checked chronology to hand journalists at our first press event, and constantly updated it thereafter. We had scanned family pictures and detailed bios ready to send at a click of a mouse.

Act proactively. RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officers would systematically call journalists who had aired or printed positive stories about Maher Arar. They tried to sow doubts ("He's no angel, and we have proof, you know"). They'd try to "sell" stories to journalists who were ignorant of the case (and preferably right wing).  Sometimes we'd find out from another journalist that they had gotten to someone. There would at least be an attempt to contact the journalist to offer fact checking. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't (see below). By pushing, but only so far, it built credibility for later. Some of the best journalists were initially writing pieces undermining Arar's credibility. But once they realized they were being lied to and manipulated by security sources, they became our strongest allies.

They make mistakes too. In November 2003, a journalist from the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Juliet O'Neil, wrote an article questioning Maher Arar's credibility. It contained leaked information and quoted unknown security sources, possibly within the RCMP, suggesting Maher Arar was a trained member of Al Qaeda. After pressure was put on the RCMP to investigate the leaks, they raided O'Neil's house, and searched and seized her files, notebooks and computers. When news broke of the police raid on the journalist home, I was jubilant. I knew this was going to send all media outlets on the war path. "Tonight, I know we're going to win," I said. And I was right.

Stay true to your values. Then later that night, Monia came to discuss the issue. Monia's initial reaction to the RCMP raid on Juliet O'Neil's house was very different from mine.  Monia's concern for the journalist, despite the fact that she had published a frankly damaging story for her husband, was genuine. She was shocked. She said it was terrible. She identified with what had happened to Ms. O'Neil, and issued a statement denouncing the raid. This was a major lesson for me. I learned that being strategic is not enough. You need to show you care at all times, even towards those who may have hurt your cause. Staying true to your values is sometimes more important than concerns about who's "winning" or loosing. At the same time, Monia's empathy won her many allies, and in unlikely circles, I'm sure.

Work the phone. A press person needs to work the phone tirelessly. Build your phone personae. It helps if your style is energetic, vibrant, upbeat, straight to the point  -- journalists don't have time to waste. They want your pitch. Give it to them, and they'll come to you. Build up your credibility by avoiding being a schmooze and a time sucker.

Be "on". The main press person needs to be reachable at all times. A journalist calls and wants an interview: "I can be there in half an hour, is that okay?". A radio host calls and asks a few prospective questions, then BOOM: "Can we tape this now?" Media will get you media. If you're big in the morning press, the TV station is likely to call. Sad but true, media is like money. The more you have, the more you earn.

Answer. Try not to refuse a question. If you must, be clear that you just can't answer for now, but will eventually do this, or that. Tie your answer to your objective and repeat the message. Never say "No Comment" or "Won't confirm nor deny" — these are our opponent's lines!

Facts first. Enough with the ideology, rant, or stating the obvious already! Leave the rhetoric out and focus on the facts. It's okay to check specifics during an interview. Or, say you'll check and call back in the next half hour. You'll look more credible. Reliability builds trust.

Build a hook. Look for ways to connect your story to today's event, not yesterday's news (sorry, but this is so 10 hours ago!). Think of the media's memory as your computer RAM. It reboots and forgets everything overnight. Unless of course it's something HUGE like the Holocaust, no journalists will care about last month's story.

Stay current. Many progressives pride themselves on ignoring mainstream news. But if you are going to do media work, you must follow the press, watch the news nightly, and know who the reporters are by name. Research their previous features, know what beat they cover and what's their "angle".

Honest thanks. You can say thank you, and be grateful, without compromising the journalist's feeling of objectivity. Compliment on the craft (the writing style, the interview skills, the editing) when it is truly well done.

Some enemies are your best friends. Don't be afraid to send journalist to your opponent's most angry, antagonizing, rabid, extreme spokespersons. Sometimes, your worst opponents can really be your allies, especially when they can ruin their own credibility in two minutes or less. In our case, the Jordanian ambassador was a wonderful man. He sounded so much like a repressive dictator, he was buttressing our case every time he opened his mouth!

Speak from the heart. Real emotions are okay. Lay them out there! That was my first and main piece of advice to Monia. It is in fact a good idea to practice talking to journalists as if you were talking to a friend. A friendly tone is better then being so uptight because "Oh my god! You're dealing with the MEDIA!" (big M). Keep that "human touch". It makes you emotionally newsworthy. You are not a sanitized PR hack and that's what makes you wonderful. People need to feel you, not just hear you.

Go fresh. If you really really suck at doing media, then by any means let others do the work. Yes, Victoria, the most powerful person in an organization is not always the best spokesperson. Don't underestimate the appeal of the newbie, that fresh, articulate new face that the media is going to love.

Use a symbol. One is enough. Pick the most powerful. The large-sized Canadian passport shown in the picture was chosen partly to counter the potential racist label being put on an "arab immigrant".

Avoid rush hour. Plan your events around news deadlines. Know the big things coming up by monitoring the newswires.

Q&A's are good. Prepare your own Questions and Answers (Q&A). Then forget about them when you talk. Don't recite, ever. The worst thing you can do is sound like a tape recorder. Journalists hate that, and they get it all the time.

Imagine. Visualize the headline. Hear the teaser. See the camera angles, the shots. Compose your image. Choose your background with care. Do some inner work. Envision the qualities you want to embody while speaking — strong, determined, focused, etc.

Tell a story. Remember: an issue is not a story. Practice storytelling as an art form. Make it your craft.  Illustrate illustrate illustrate. With examples, metaphors, little stories, vivid descriptions. Make it alive and let it crawl. For print journalists, try to describe the setting with compelling descriptions, give a clear sense of picture, tell the anecdote like that great aunt of yours. Writing a press release is also an art form. Learn it.

Frame the movie. Choose a colourful setting. Talking heads are a bore. For television, think ahead about moves and scenes, if only to avoid the lame "walking to the office" reenactment. If you end up doing the walk thing, ask a colleague or constituent to join you, and talk together while doing it.

Clip your sound bite. Concentrate on one strong metaphor. Keep only 15-20 seconds. Don't be afraid to use working class language to get your point across, if you're okay with that. Small talk is good, but the clip is the real deal, mate.

Stay present. Be "live" inside your body. When cameras are on you, connect with that part of you that's most alive in that instant. When doing a press conference, look at the person who's talking when you're not. If you, who are sitting at the head table, are more interested in reviewing your notes than in what's being said, then why should journalists care?

Don't read. As a general rule, please avoid reading prepared statements. But this rule can be broken when the stakes and the media interest run very high. Maher Arar read most of his initial statements to the press. But he had good delivery and what he had to say was very powerful.

The shorter the better. Don't ramble on. Stop yourself from getting trapped into long answers. Answers should be brief. If something looks off track, answer the off-topic questions with a succinct answer.

Talk to your mom. Talk with the public’s understanding and point of view in mind. Remember that through the reporter, you are really talking to your family and friends, and the general public. So mind your jargon and spell out the acronyms.

Repeat, she said. Repeat. Be ready to repeat yourself. Reporters may repeat their question because they want you to rephrase your answer. Maybe it was too long, too complex. Perhaps they didn’t understand you, or they’re trying to help you give a more “quotable” quote. Welcome the opportunity to state your message more clearly. If the interview is being recorded, you can also ask to try again your answer, if you're not happy with your delivery.

Keep clean. Make positive statements instead of denying or refuting comments from others. State your message. Let others speak for themselves. If possible, use humour and anecdotes.

Play with the devil. One way journalists do their job is by repeating the strongest or most outrageous arguments against your position, and asking for a reaction. It doesn't mean the reporter "buys" the argument, or is necessarily hostile, by the way. They may secretly pray for you to come up with a hard-hitting retort to that argument. Use the opportunity. Your Q&A prep work comes in handy here. In your answer, don't repeat the reporter’s negative statement. Turn the sentence around. Focus on the positive. They will quote you, not themselves. So use your own words, not the reporter’s vicious buzz words. For other tips on dealing with the difficult interview, see "Getting good press" in this Canadian Library Association document.

So what happened next?

The high-powered press work paid off handsomely in the Arar case.

After extensive hearings, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Arar case confirmed in 2005 the torture he endured, exonerated him, and blamed national security agencies. Maher Arar has since received official excuses from the Canadian Prime Minister. He has been awarded $10.5 million dollars as compensation for his ordeal. He has been named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential individuals. The head of the RCMP recently had to resign over his treatment of Maher Arar, and his attempted coverup.

The ripple effects from this case are still being felt today as similar cases are now also receiving national and international attention from the press. And who knows? The Arar story may also have brought long-lasting change in the inclinations of some journalists who were radicalized by the experience.

One thing is for sure, the media culture in this country experienced a major shift in remembering the importance of safeguarding human rights in the post 9-11 world. Plus, the end goal of preventing other Arar cases, of stopping all renditions for good is now clearly within reach.


Philippe Duhamel

Photos: Ottawa, Sept. 2003 — Monia Mazigh holds a procession for the return of her husband, Maher Arar. She's joined by their two children, Barâa (to her side) and Houd (in stroller), her own mother (left) and Maher Arar's mother (right). Photo: Philippe Duhamel.

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