March For Our Lives co-founder Brendan Duff discusses why the organization has expanded its mission to focus on voter registration, how they have formed and maintained successful partnerships with the corporate world, and which PR tactics continue to be an essential part of their activism efforts. This discussion is part of our series reviewing the 2020 Global Communication Report on New Activism, which is available for free download at annenberg.usc.edu/gcr.
March for Our Lives began in a small town in Florida, but its student organizers went on to spearhead the largest single-day protest against gun violence in U.S. history. The organization registered over 50,000 new voters and spurred the highest percentage of youth voter turnout ever in the 2018 midterm elections.
In part two of our interview with March For Our Lives co-founder Brendan Duff, Brendan discusses why the March For Our Lives organization has expanded its mission to focus on voter registration, how they have formed and maintained successful partnerships with corporations and which public relations tactics continue to be an essential part of their efforts.
This discussion is part of our series reviewing the 2020 Global Communication Report on New Activism, which is available for free download at annenberg.usc.edu/gcr.
Fred Cook, Brendan Duff
Fred Cook 00:14
March For Our Lives, one of the most powerful youth-led coalitions in American history, was born on Valentine's Day of 2018, just hours after a 19-year-old gunman took the lives of 17 people and left many more injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In response to a tsunami of media requests in those first few days, Brendan Duff became the de facto communications manager for March For Our Lives. In the beginning, he and his team used social media to spread their message and organized the single largest protest against gun violence. This historic event solidified a global movement, and its leaders quickly realized that creating long-lasting change was going to require some serious political clout. To gain that critical support, March For Our Lives mounted a campaign to increase turnout among young voters, and to seek out partners in the business world who were ready to take a stand on gun control.
Brendan Duff 01:27
For 2020, as is consistent with years past, government and media and politics have a severe lack of trust amongst the public, while businesses still are pretty high up there. So people really do trust businesses and brands to be doing the right thing, and in many cases, leading this social change. And I think that that's been very representative of what we've seen with March For Our Lives. I think I've already seen a major uptick in companies wanting to be a part of the solution, wanting to put purpose on the same playing field and on the same platform as profit. And you know, [not just] wanting to look like we're doing the right thing, but actually helping out. I've seen within the last few years a willingness to be able to engage further than what was customary previously. And I can't help but feel like that is a direct result of activism and of people taking note of these trends among young people, and especially thinking about who is going to be leading these organizations and companies in the future, who is going to be leading our country in the future? You know, I think it's right and it's a smart move to be working with the activists of today, now.
Fred Cook 02:43
Welcome to PR Future, the podcast that delivers interesting insights into the dynamic world of public relations. Our first few episodes take a deep dive into what we call "New Activism," to better understand how activists are using traditional PR tools to deliver their messages, and how PR professionals can form successful partnerships with activists to create long-lasting change. Today, we will continue the journey of Brendan Duff, co-founder of March For Our Lives, who is graduating from Elon University this year with a degree in strategic communications. In this episode, Brendan will explain how March For Our Lives evolved from a determined group of high school friends into a respected global organization, and what the future holds for this impressive group of young activists. I'm Fred Cook, from the USC Center for Public Relations at the Annenberg School, and this is PR Future.
Fred Cook 03:59
Our most recent Global Communication Report shows that PR professionals believe activism is more effective in raising awareness than in creating long-lasting change. Brendan suggests that the key to achieving long-lasting change lies in having a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, and getting to the root causes of the issue that you're trying to solve. And then, adapting and expanding your message when necessary.
Brendan Duff 04:27
I think it's about having a vision for whatever you want to accomplish early on, and also having different vessels or vehicles to accomplish that mission. So what I mean by that is, when we first started taking to media, and first started getting all of this national attention, it was all about the Parkland survivors. By the time of the March For Our Lives, we came out with five policy points, and we did that so that it was easy for everyone to remember and that everyone could stay on message, and that we could have five big asks that we knew we weren't going to get all of, but that we thought accurately covered the gun violence epidemic and that we could see the most direct results in from enacting these pieces of legislation. By the time we got to the March For Our Lives, we had expanded that to be 10. And then we've also unveiled A Peace Plan For A Safer America. And the reason I'm telling you this is because it signifies how the movement has expanded so much more and has encompassed and taken in so much more than just Parkland. By the time of the March For Our Lives, we had representation in our speakers from Milwaukee and from Los Angeles and from [Washington] D.C., and from Chicago, and really just representing the multiple facets of the gun violence epidemic. So people that had been touched by suicide, by domestic violence, by everyday shootings on the streets, by school shootings, just kind of all of these different facets of the gun violence epidemic to show people that, you know, even though school shootings are the ones that seem the most atrocious because they're the ones that seem the most senseless, there are so many other parts of this gun violence epidemic, and there's so many other ways to address it. And I think that that's how we were able to say "This is absolutely a long-term goal. This is long-term change, it's not going to happen overnight. If we get background checks passed, if we get red flag laws passed, even if we get an assault weapons ban passed, it's not going to stop every facet of gun violence, which means our movement, our issue, our mission has not been met.” So we needed to kind of broaden and include more people so that we could speak to the other sides of gun violence, not just school shootings, so that we could be sustainable, that we could stay relevant and remain within the conversation, and not just raise awareness for how terrible school shootings are, but raise awareness and give actionable steps for how we can actually prevent mass shootings in the future.
Fred Cook 06:53
But messaging is only part of the story. Like every smart campaign, when the time was right, March For Our Lives shifted their strategy to become much more than a protest movement.
Brendan Duff 07:05
I definitely see the March For Our Lives and the organization and mobilization efforts that went into the first big March For Our Lives protest on March 24 in 2018, I see all of those efforts, and I see everything that happened that day being activism. Absolutely. But I do think that every single day we’ve spent working since then has also been activism. And I think that it's really broadened in the activism community to be so much more than just your traditional protests and rallies. In fact, I think that that's not even seen as a strategy, that's seen as a tactic in the activism world. I think that that point would resonate strongly with March For Our Lives members as well. We wanted to raise awareness so that there was enough public will and political will and enough public opinion on one side of this to be able to affect these policy points. Ultimately, when we broke it down to it simplest form, and when we zoomed out as far as we possibly could have, it began with voting. And it began with having people in office that represented our ideology and our stance on this issue enough that they would be able to stand up against the gun lobby and stand up against the lack of political will to do anything on this issue to get some significant legislation passed. So raising awareness is crucial. In cases like ours, it can absolutely start with these large-scale protests and rallies. We saw the step one as being the march, and that's kind of the springboard for this amazing large youth voter turnout that we wanted to enact in the midterm election just a few months down the road later that year in 2018.
Fred Cook 08:38
Following on that train of thought, everyone sees activism growing in the future. And the main reason they said was just lack of faith and trust in the political system. Because they aren't expecting much from the government, they're looking to business, to the corporate world to sort of lead change on some of these critical issues. Have you found good partners in the corporate world? Do feel like that's an opportunity for you?
Brendan Duff 09:04
For corporate involvement and in corporate relation to our movement and to other movements in the realm of social change and activism, I think we've seen two kinds of responses. One response is the Walmart and the Dick's [Sporting Goods] response. It's not that they acted some way that that caused something directly, but it's that their policies or their sales or whatever was lending itself to these kinds of events. And so, obviously, Dick's Sporting Goods we saw, really soon — even before students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school went back to school — Dick's Sporting Goods decided to take guns off their shelves, and, and that, you know, I think that that was a choice that they knew was going to cost them a little bit of business and was going to create some backlash, but knew that it was the right thing to do. We saw that kind of response, which is similar to the Walmart response where they decided to ban the sale of hand guns and ammunition and encourage people to not do open carry within their stores, as well as vowed to do background checks and push Congress on enacting background checks. To me that response, or I guess that involvement is a direct response to the activism and the scrutiny that they were facing in many forms, but also just the influx, the rise of activism. Whereas on the other side of things, we've seen a direct support of the activism that we've seen. So that is more of a partnership thing that you were alluding to earlier. And just some brands that stand out to me that I've specifically worked with in my time at March For Our Lives are Levi's. Levi's has really supported us from the beginning and they've kind of created their own lane within their corporate social responsibility and just within their corporation, of gun violence prevention. They've donated to gun violence prevention spaces, and they've included us within a lot of projects that they've done and have really continued their support. Other brands like this, are Tom's, [they] did a large campaign with us called End Gun Violence Together. And so I think those are the two kinds of engagements you see within the corporate world right now, are responses to activism and support of activism.
Fred Cook 11:20
How does March For Our Lives decide which companies they want to work with or which companies you will join partnerships with?
Brendan Duff 11:29
So it's got to be authentic, and there need to be actionable steps that are taken in order for it to be something that we're going to kind of give a win for. What we call slacktivism, which is essentially just surface level lip service that is saying, "Yeah, we're supporting this organization," or, "We might have their logo on one of our things, but we're not really doing anything to help them or we're not donating resources or time or ideas or anything," it's not a true partnership, it's just kind of an association. So I don't think that activists and I don't think nonprofits today are down for that. I don't think that that works with today's activists, because it's not authentic. And I think that in the age of social media, which has really brought this kind of heightened focus on transparency, especially within big corporations, I think that we've seen people that are not willing to buy into that if it's not going to be authentic.
Fred Cook 12:31
Our survey on New Activism shows that the majority of PR professionals believe activists will become more influential in the next five years. Even though most corporate communicators don't proactively engage with activist groups today, many of them predict they will in the future. And Brendan is seeing encouraging signs that point to a more collaborative relationship between activists and the corporate world.
Brendan Duff 12:58
I already have seen In a significant increase, as long as I've been in this space, which is just over two years now. It's also been through our, our lens of this all which has been very different from traditional organizations and companies.
Fred Cook 13:15
When we talk about the activist of today, we asked people in communication what they thought that new activists look like: younger for sure, more urban, more tech savvy, more diverse and also more female. You work with a lot of very powerful females in March For Our Lives. Do you believe that females are going to be driving this new activism?
Brendan Duff 13:41
Yeah Fred, I don't just believe it, I definitely know it. We've worked with so many badass women in March For Our Lives. I mean, as long as I've known March For Our Lives, it's been definitely — women have been calling the shots. And I mean, that's reflective of Emma's "We Call B.S." speech so early on, that just went absolutely viral. Jackie [Jaclyn] Corin I have to mention too, she started in the organization when she was 17 years old and she was junior class president, and she was already insanely busy and just took on all the operations of March For Our Lives, and I would have believed that she had been doing it for years. I do think that the empowerment of women and the empowerment of young diverse voices and especially from urban and black and brown communities are absolutely at the forefront of the activism world and conversations. And I honestly think that if your organization and your activism efforts aren't representative of the multiple facets of your issues — so not just climate change, but climate change equity, for example, not just school shootings, but everyday shootings, for example — making sure that your organization represents the multiple facets of your issue, but also the people in your organization represent the United States, I think that is absolutely a qualification for a nonprofit or an organization or a group of activists to be legitimized.
Fred Cook 15:04
Let me ask you about you in your career. You study communications, public relations, and you're an activist. You've got a foot in both the PR world and the activism world. It seems like the activists today are adopting all of the modern PR techniques to deliver their message and, and PR people are sort of, you know, becoming more purpose-driven in their approach. How do you see these two things intersecting or impacting one another?
Brendan Duff 15:31
Activism, again, is so — it's not just the people that are rallying in the streets and protesting every day. You know, a lot of activists are on the other side of this and are working for PR firms or are working for big corporations and they consider themselves activists and advocates too, and oftentimes, they're within the organization. And I think that that's signifying how it's going to be a much more singular lane, like the activism lane and the PR corporate lane right now are going to start merging more together and strategies are going to start coinciding. But I don't think we're quite there yet. I do think that we're taking each other's strategies definitely like it's really funny, sometimeson calls within the organization or within the agency that we work with, we've gotten suggestions from them, and we've gotten suggestions from traditional PR practitioners and been like, "Why have we never thought of that before?" And on the flip side of that, we've presented things that we've come up with or we've been like, "Yeah, we just started working on the social media campaign" and the PR firm is like "We would never have come up with that." It's a give-and-take relationship right now where we are totally enacting a lot of traditional media and a lot of traditional PR strategies. And I also think we're paving the way for a whole new side of PR strategy that's very peer to peer based and very interpersonal, mostly through social media.
Fred Cook 16:58
So we're learning from each other.
Brendan Duff 17:00
Yes, I would say so.
Fred Cook 17:02
Looking into the future, where do you see March For Our Lives in five and 10 years?
Brendan Duff 17:08
So my optimistic answer is that I would hope that March For Our Lives does not have to exist in 10 years. The end goal for March For Our Lives is to be able to move on and not have to exist as an organization, where we have this pervasive fear of gun violence in our country. But, of course, I think that's the optimistic answer. I think, in order to really be successful and to remain relevant and to stay in the conversation and to continue this kind of fierce energy that we have — we took all 2019 to make this a reality — but we need to be able to pass the baton in the organization. You know, the Parkland story, and the Parkland connection is always going to be the organization's foundation and that's always going to be the background. However, I think that it needs to be consistently youth-led, which means we need to be able to create the space, the infrastructure and the sustainability to be able to pass down the baton and make sure that this organization is ever-changing and ever including new young people and new young voices in the conversation. As long as gun violence will be a thing, school shootings will be a thing. And as unfortunate as that is, we need people that are directly on the front lines of this issue. So that's going to be people in high school and college, and that's going to be young people. I even feel at 22 that I'm on the older end of this now. And yeah, when I was 20 when this all happened, myself and my friends, Matt and Caitlin, we were the oldest people in the organization, we were 20. And now at 22 I'm like "Alright, I'm transitioning to the other side of this now." So it's interesting, but I think in order for it to maintain its edge and its brand and its original purpose, it needs to stay youth-led and that is completely incumbent on the people that are the leaders in the organization right now.
Fred Cook 18:56
Coming from someone who's much older than 22, I have found this movement so inspiring and so hopeful. I think I feel like a lot of other people my age, we're pulling for you, and we hope that you can create the kind of long-lasting change that perhaps my generation wasn't able to do. So, thanks for all your hard work, Brendan, and the rest of your group, and thank you for joining us today. We really appreciate it, it's been a great conversation.
Brendan Duff 19:23
Absolutely. Yeah, it was my pleasure. Thank you so much, Fred.
Fred Cook 19:27
The fight isn't over for March For Our Lives. Although the coronavirus [COVID-19] has created some uncertainty about our future, one thing is clear. Brendan and his contemporaries will continue to define what new activism looks like. And the PR industry will be watching. And hopefully, participating.
Fred Cook 19:52
Thanks for tuning in to PR Future, a progressive podcast created for PR professionals, by PR professionals. To learn more, tap the link in the show notes to download your copy of "New Activism." And subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.
Fred Cook 20:18
Today's episode was produced by Ron Antonette, ZaZu Lippert and Manuelita Maldonado. Special thanks to Cathy Park, Devyn Harrod and Sandra Stanisa, all from the USC Center for Public Relations. I'm your host, Fred Cook, and this is PR Future.