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  • Writer's pictureMike Petchenik

The Pen is Mightier Than The Sword

Updated: Sep 9, 2023



The element I loved most about my 20-year career in journalism was the chance to help people and to really make a difference.

I relished holding powerful people accountable for their actions, especially politicians, and to shine a light to help people who might otherwise not be able to help themselves.


Advocacy journalism fulfilled me.

Early in my career, my reporting forced a local mayor to return more than $20,000 in campaign donations after I uncovered the money illegally came from a foreign donor. After that, I was hooked.


I’ve reported on wrongful arrests, mishandled court cases; my stories have helped families facing financial ruin, homeowners fighting the power of city hall, and I’ve helped “right” other miscarriages of justice.


It was a responsibility I never took lightly.

So, when I left the TV news business two years ago to venture over to “the dark side” of corporate communications and public relations, I missed that part of the job.

While pitching for-profit clients for vanity coverage paid the bills, it didn’t really “scratch that itch.”

The Clients

Not long after I started Petchenik Media Group, several business owners approached me to help them wage a media pressure campaign against a local city whose leadership unilaterally decided to close a popular restaurant district’s main thoroughfare to vehicular traffic without consulting those most affected; livelihoods were at stake.


The project called for a mix of straight media relations/PR, crisis communications, and a touch of advocacy journalism, rolled into one glorious gig, something I’m now calling “Vigilante PR.”


The Strategy


I approached the project as I would have if I were reporting a story: Tell me the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of your situation, then I leaned on my journalism background to help us craft the messages we’d need to grab attention and, most importantly, to convince reporters our story was worth covering.


Our first tactic was to call a news conference to draw a line in the sand and to get the clients’ message out loudly and clearly: “Closing this stretch of road to vehicles was bad for business and big, bad government was overreaching.”


We chose our speaker lineup, I coached them on their talking points, and we assembled a large group of stakeholders to visually show the opposition, complete with poster board signs that read: "Keep Canton Street Open."


Incredibly, every TV station in the market sent a crew and the papers sent their beat reporters.

The pushback, ensuing media coverage, and outcry forced the Mayor to call a public meeting, at which he apologized on TV for putting the cart before the horse and promised a more “thorough discussion.”


One Battle Won, A War Still to Wage


The Mayor’s solution was to form a “task force” of business owners and residents to “study” a trial closure and to make a recommendation to the city council, but the stakeholders quickly learned the tactic was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.


A few weeks later, the city council met behind closed doors to install members of this special task force; our media strategy was a step ahead of them, reminding voters about the city's lack of recent transparency.


We alerted reporters and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation to the potential sunshine law violations, which forced the council to take a public vote.


When the city council appointed the task force, it didn't include any of the concerned stakeholders, and appeared to be filled with those sympathetic to the mayor’s mission to "rubber stamp" his plans.


Let’s Get Social


Part of our overall strategy to keep the public discourse going was to be active on social media.


We created a Facebook group where stakeholders could share their thoughts and solicit feedback from the community.


In just three weeks, the page grew to more than 900 organic followers, providing us a target audience of voters with whom to share the messages.


We posted media coverage links, stakeholder messages, and other content on the page to keep the conversation going and the electorate engaged.


Advocate, Advocate, Advocate


One of my clients' major concerns was the impact any street closure had on their bottom lines and how it impacted traffic in the surrounding neighborhoods.


Each month, the city closes a portion of the street on a Thursday night to host a downtown festival with food trucks and other vendors, so we decided to produce our own stories providing proof of their plight.


I captured video of the festivities, the traffic backups, and interviewed stakeholders about their concerns, then leveraged my TV news background to produce high-quality videos to share with our audiences.


We posted them to our Facebook group, tagged reporters on a Twitter handle we created, and launched Youtube versions of the videos for stakeholders to share with the task force members, Mayor, and City Council.


We also shared b-roll of the event with the media who couldn’t make it in person.


Keeping Up The Pressure


At their first meeting, task force members raised concerns about the city’s lack of due diligence into the possible impacts of a closure, which captured headlines in the following day’s major daily newspaper and on TV.


Sensing he was losing his footing, the Mayor hastily called a news conference the following day under the guise of providing community updates, so I showed up with my camera to ask him tough questions in case other reporters didn’t.


I pressed city officials about their lack of studies, and got the city’s transportation director to admit a true traffic study would take two to three months to complete, even though the task force had just 30 days to make its recommendation.


We then posted the raw footage on our channels.


Checkmate

The following week, task force members assembled for their second meeting, and in just ten minutes, they recommended disbanding and demanded the city hire an independent third-party urban planner to study the potential economic, public safety, and traffic impacts of a closure.


Because I knew the big Atlanta newsrooms likely weren’t going to staff yet another evening meeting,I live-streamed it on our Facebook page and shared the link with assignment desks and reporters, and when the stakeholders were victorious, I walked around the room interviewing members for the live stream for our audiences and for the media.


We blasted Atlanta media with a breaking news update, which made it into late evening newscasts and in follow up coverage the next day.


One of my clients even landed a coveted slot on a popular talk radio show that gave her 15 minutes of airtime to discuss the victory and next steps.


As I publish this blog, we’re still waiting to hear how the Mayor and city council proceed and whether they’ll force this closure regardless of the task force recommendations, but rest assured, the vigilante PR campaign is ready to restart at any moment.


**UPDATE**

The Mayor and City Council agreed to follow the task force recommendations and are holding off on any closure discussions until they finish a city-wide economic impact study.












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