We have been reaching out to some of the influential people in the nonprofit/mission-based/greening/housing (etc.!) communities to hear about the work their organizations are involved with and how these individuals got involved in that work. Their insights and experiences can inspire us all as we continue our work in our chosen areas.
The series of interviews continues with Linda Cronin-Gross, founder and president of National Writers Union as well. Linda Gross’s success has not been linear or without challenges (like walking a straight line through the lobby of the Rockefeller Center with a teary-eyed political candidate). Yet her perseverance and good humor have been critical to the success she and her firm have enjoyed over the last decade. So how did she grow from music teacher to adviser and communications specialist to greening groups and progressive organizations throughout New York?(Brooklyn, NY). She has been in the worlds of politics and public relations since the late 1970s, and she founded LCG Communications ten years ago in an effort to educate nonprofits on the benefits of strategic communications for progressive, issues-driven organizations and campaigns as well as for small businesses. She is a member of the
I began our interview by asking her how she moved into the world of PR for nonprofits and community activists. She came to it “by happy accident” during the economic downturn at the beginning of the 1980s. She began her career as an elementary-school teacher with a focus on music, but she was let go as the school system underwent budget cuts. She soon began working for Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan, NY. There she got on-the-job training in working with the media and preparing press releases, “and my course was set.” Indeed, the school system asked her back a couple of years later, but she wanted to stay in the world of political activism and public relations.( ) on a project to halt expansion of the
Linda Gross’s next job got her deeply involved in city politics, “which is quite a nasty business,” but one “exciting for its battles over ideas… Indeed, if I had the choice between the world of ideas and the world of selling stuff, I choose the world of ideas.” Her firm’s clients were mostly the “most progressive Democrats, which meant we lost a lot! But there is always something going on: there are always events to be gotten to and speeches to be written… You learn to work fast. In politics, you learn fast or you are gone. There are also lots of great stories!” Including one she shared of helping a city-wide candidate get through the NBC lobby at Rockefeller Center as he sobbed about how poorly he had done on a televised debate. Linda had to buck-up the candidate without laughing too hard at his reaction and without betraying too much embarrassment as they get through the lobby.
Ms. Gross then spoke about how most Americans probably are unaware (she implied ‘blissfully unaware’) of how politics works at the personal level, but that modern technologies like camera phones and recorders, blogs, and real-time tweeting from netbooks and touch-pad devices has brought much more of this sort of on-the-ground politicking to a wider audience. We would return to the topic of technology and social media and how they have changed the PR workplace as well.
“At some point [in the early 1990s] I kinda burned out on politics, which can be a little too mean-spirited for me. I give lots of credit to those who can make it to the top, to the national level. I stayed on with the progressive politics and the non profits, though. I did keep the politics, but I got rid of the politicians.” She moved on to a couple of PR firms in New York, where she continued her learning experience (Ms. Gross often, and modestly, pointed out that she did not have a traditional or institutional education in public relations). In November 1999 she felt comfortable and prepared to start her own agency: “I saw a need, perhaps a niche, for a PR firm that worked with the smaller progressive nonprofit groups in New York who often are the ones who have little money but needed a voice. They often could not get a PR firm to help them simply because the firms charged so much money or the agencies wanted then to be locked into a contract in the long term. But a lot of the nonprofits’ incomes vary widely because they are dependent on funding from the outside. So we thought we could service that group. A little chancy, of course, but we thought we could keep ourselves sort-of stripped down and not have fancy offices, and just provide the services without all of the glitz. Something we are still striving to do.”
One of the early successes was to work with a coalition of environmental and neighborhood/borough groups who wanted to develop and reopen a number of garbage treatment sites throughout greater New York in an effort to redistribute the burden of waste disposal. They wanted in particular to have the city reopen and run its own ‘marine transfer stations’ that had collected borough-wide trash for transport by barge to landfills. Many of these stations were on the water, of course, and became targets for private real-estate developers who were able since the late-1960s to convince the city to close down some of the transfer stations, especially those in already affluent areas. Since then, “many community groups wanted to develop a new, more equitable plan for dealing with the residential and commercial waste streams in the City because low-income communities of color were processing more than their share of the City’s garbage.” The shutdown of many of the treatement centers has meant more garbage trucks were needed to collect and move out the trash, and more burden was put on poorer neighborhoods who also had to contend with trucks coming in with refuse from wealthier areas.
LCG Communications took up the cause with the coalition (Ms. Gross enjoyed pointing out the “not exactly glamorous” jobs her firm often takes on), and pressed first the media then the politicians to speak of “environmental justice” and the need for “infrastructure equity” through the city. The New York Times was one of the first that began using such terms, which Linda Gross believes (and surely rightly so) began to move the debate to one of equal opportunity and environmental sustainability, rather than one of economic class and real-estate values. It was, she says, a “many-years project” and continues to be a concern for her clients. Moreover, LCG Communications was one of the early groups to speak of “sustainability” and “green economy” in an effort to convince audiences of the need to reconsider their carbon footprints and their business models as those models had their impact on communities.
When speaking about the work of the PR firm generally, Linda Gross emphasizes the fact that LCG Communications is “a gigantic bullhorn for the community groups who are doing the real work.” She is in many respects a de-mystifier: “There is no magic or secret in public relations. It’s about being clear and repetition.” And her early work in childhood education has been a foundation for her to succeed in public relations. LCG Communications views part of its mission as one of educating clients as well, and the firm hosts week-long and one-day seminars for socially engaged organizations like unions and neighborhood associations. She adds that her teaching experience is a real help here, and many clients have stayed with the firm and new clients have been brought in because of their desire to participate in those workshops.
When we turned to the social media revolution of the last few years, she spoke with a notable mixture of reticence with her overall optimism not evident in our interview thus far. Ms. Gross is an occasional blogger for “The Huffington Post,” which she remarked was thought to be doomed to failure and is now one of the most read sites on the net. She also is thoroughly engaged with getting clients to (re)consider various forms of social media as part of their outreach strategies. That said, she also is fearful of the lost distinction between reporting/journalism and opinion/reaction. “How can we teach people the difference in reporting, which is a trained profession with skills and standards and checks, and opinion, which should be part of the experience, but not at the cost of reporters.” She has many colleagues in the NYC media world of course, and she says those in ‘traditional media’ (one’s tendency is here to think New York Times) are “in daily fear of being let go or seeing their offices closed.”
At the macro level, she is wise enough to posit more questions than answers. For example: “How does the Times move forward? As a ‘Sunday Only’ paper? Only via the Kindle? Does it merge with other outlets? [If print falls below economies of scale,] Where does PR turn to get messages out? Is social media always useful, or only speaking to those predisposed to your message?” Here she sees a notable difference in age groups, even in such a media-savvy image-conscious city. “Younger staff both at LCG and with our clients are clearly more enthusiastic and engaged, though most of our clients appreciate the possibilities.” For her firm, discussion and use of social media is a client-by-client issue. As we have often noted on this blog, though, the advantages of scalability often win over many of the reticent clients.
We turned finally to wrestle with some of the great challenges she sees in the marketplace where LCG Communications does its good work. “The economy is problem number one,” as nonprofits remain nervous about revenue streams from donors, who are enduring reduction in incomes in turn. Ms. Gross has seen good innovation within the economic calamity, though. Successful nonprofits, she says, have been challenged to see the advantages of “selling stuff” and develop a brand, not just a logo or tag line, with the help of firms such as hers. She has also seen a rise in expectations for members of boards of nonprofits. Traditionally, such members were figureheads and occasional spokespersons. These days, they are called upon to participate regularly as the public faces of their nonprofits. This expectation seems especially true in the smaller, face-to-face, meetings that continue to be the foundation of relationships among nonprofits and their supporters. The technology-side of that equation might be opening more doors, but board members need to use their connections and skills to close deals (as they often do and did in the for-profit world).
Linda Cronin-Gross and LCG Communications continue to go from strength to strength. They have been working with Majora Carter to improve environmental justice in New York, especially the Bronx, since she started “Sustainable South Bronx” in 2001. Ms. Carter’s coalition has since developed into the “,” and its constituents and clients are now all over the country. She was a proud recipient of a MacAurthur Genius Grant in 2005 to continue her group’s efforts. The goal of the group is “to use the green economy and green economic tools to unlock the potential of every place – urban, rural and everywhere in between.” LCG Communications worked with her fledgling organization in the Bronx, and Ms. Gross pointed out the foresight of Majora Carter and her colleagues as they appreciated from the inception of their work the need of a communications and branding component to their development.
Though the economy continues to be tough on every sector but the oil industry and that of financial services, LCG Communications has been able to remain flexible and sensitive to the scale of opportunity their myriad of clients bring. LCG Communications is committed to using new technologies and social media to expand the opportunities that must also be made with old-fashioned networking and person-to-person deal making. It is a testament to the success of LCG that even when we talked about terrible erosion of skilled jobs and fact-checkers that the recession has imposed, Linda Gross also saw the opportunities within that recession and how smart communications firms and community-action groups were finding creative ways through the economic downturn. LCG Communications will do the same, and lead others out of it as well.
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