Photo by Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash
August 14, 2019

How do you use the media for advocacy?

Vince Warren

Vince Warren is the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a frequent guest on MSNBC, Democracy Now, CNN, and other news channels. He joins us to talk about communications as a tool to advocate more effectively. 

He shares an example of how CCR leveraged the media to shift public views about stop-and-frisk in New York City, tales from appearing on FOX News, and recommendations for media relations rookies.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host Sarah Durham, and I’m joined today by Vince Warren, the Executive Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Hi, Vince!

Vince Warren: Hey Sarah, how are you?

Sarah Durham: I’m well. Thank you for coming today. Tell us a little bit about the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Vince Warren: Well CCR is a 50 year old organization. We are a litigation and advocacy organization and we partner with social movements, people that are on the ground, and communities under threat. Together we work to dismantle oppression in the fight for justice.

Sarah Durham: For those of you who don’t know Vince or the Center for Constitutional Rights, you are in for a treat.

Prior to coming to CCR, Vince was a National Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU. He litigated civil rights cases there and he’s focused on affirmative action, racial profiling, criminal justice reform. He’s also been involved in all kinds of groundbreaking social justice work. You might know him because he’s a frequent guest on MSNBC, Democracy Now. He’s appeared on Moyers and Company with Bill Moyers. CNN. Even Fox News.

Vince Warren: Fox News.

Sarah Durham: Vince is one of those rare examples of an executive director who really understands how to leverage media relations. I wanted him to come and talk a little bit with us about that today. You can follow Vince on Twitter @VinceWarren.

Let’s dig in. Vince, how long have you been the CEO of the Center?

Vince Warren: I’ve been Executive Director for 12 years. When I started, we had I think what was typical of— maybe 19 people. We had one communication staff and their job was primarily just to draft press releases and statements in our advocacy work in order to support and let people know what we were doing.

Having been there for 12 years, I’ve realized that there’s actually a much more robust function that communications can and frankly should have. Particularly in advocacy organizations where the goal is to not only inform people about your work, but you’re always asking three questions. What do we want? The second question is who is going to give it to us, and the third question is, what do they need to hear? The communications piece is really key to those kind of key messages that the changemakers that we’re looking to influence want to hear.

Sarah Durham: It seems like you’ve really built kind of a machine around this. It’s not just the staff, but it’s a kind of cultural consciousness about the power of media relations, specifically with advocacy. How do you think about it? What are the components that make that machine successful for you?

Vince Warren: Well, one of the things that I’ve learned— I was part of the Rockwood Leadership Group a number of years ago. There’s this concept called the wheel of change. To change anything, you have to change three things simultaneously. You have to change structures, behaviors, and attitudes and beliefs. It occurred to me that in our work as an advocacy group, what litigation essentially does, particularly when we’re doing big cases like Guantanamo or stop-and-frisk or ending solitary confinement, that we’re really looking to shift and change structures through litigation. Our advocacy work is about changing behaviors and how policy makers feel and what they’re going to go to bat for.

The communications piece is really about changing attitudes and beliefs. It does require a change. There are people that are on our side, and they just need to see you show up on television. Like, “I love those guys, let’s go for it.”

There are a lot of people that are on the fence about things or that they have certain assumptions about things. The communications function really is an advocacy tool that helps shape those beliefs, which are really important in terms of that entire wheel.

Sarah Durham: I’ve said this to you offline and I’ve said this to a lot of people, I have become dubious of the power of media relations in many contexts for nonprofits, but the place where I really feel strongly it is effective is with that. It’s with advocacy. It’s in kind of shaping the hearts and minds of how people who are either kind of undecided about something feel, or kind of reinforcing something that we want from our core advocates. It’s about mindshare and visibility.

Vince Warren: I think that’s right. To give you an example of, I think, where it’s been really effective. We at CCR, the Center for Constitutional Rights, litigated the stop-and-frisk case. That case actually went on for 13 years. As we were getting to the trial, I remember that somebody in our advocacy staff put up one of those big, hairy, audacious goals. The election was coming up. Bloomberg was term limited, finally. They put the big goal up that said, we want this to be the number one issue in the mayoral election, stop-and-frisk. I thought that was just crazy, right? That’s just not going to happen. We’re lawyers. What do we know from that kind of stuff?

Well it turns out that through the media work, we were able to take some of the information that we got in the case. We worked with the New York Times. The New York Times did an amazing series of articles where they talked about stop-and-frisk in almost every single neighborhood in New York. That had the effect of shifting people’s views about stop-and-frisk from one where it was community safety, that “we need more cops because if they stop and frisk the bad guys we’ll be safer,” to one of social justice. “I can’t believe that they’re just stopping and frisking random black people in every single neighborhood of New York, whether they’ve done anything or not.” That’s a really good example of I think how advocacy can use communications to really shift the way people actually perceive the issue.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. In that case, communications really becomes a programmatic strategy. It’s not an organizational strategy, per se. Let’s talk about how in that example, for instance, if you’re collaborating with media like the New York Times, you’re working with people who are probably pretty politically aligned with some of the issues you’re working with.

What happens when you go on Fox News? How do you manage changing minds and behaviors if you’re trying to reach people who may be on the other side of an issue?

Vince Warren: Fox News is a really good example of sort of taking a hit for the team. It is one of the least pleasant experiences in life. It’s there with root canal and pop-up math tests in junior high school. From what I heard, maybe 51% of the audience doesn’t necessarily agree with the politics. You also have to look at the idea of how big the market share of Fox is, and it’s huge. It’s in every … You’ve maybe been in a hotel room, you’re looking for MSNBC, you don’t get it but they have Fox.

Strategically, it made sense to do it because there were a number of people that you could reach. The problem is, is that in order to reach them you have to get past the hosts, which is a disaster. Two quick stories about it, where I learned how Fox News does their stuff. One, I was doing something on Guantanamo and it was on Fox and Friends, sitting there in the morning on the couch with the nicely coiffed people. I was wiping the floor with them on facts and figures. I get off the show and a friend of mine shows me the link. Every time I made a point, they would show those Al-Qaeda dudes on the monkey bars. That’s all they would show, and not me. It was reinforcing this fear message.

Sarah Durham: Wow!

Vince Warren: Then the other time I was on Megyn Kelly talking about killings in Ferguson, and I was on her show and I kept stopping. She kept interrupting me and I’m like, “Why am I stopping talking?” I realized that they were turning the volume down in my earpiece and so I would stop talking so I could hear myself and she would insert herself. There are all of these tactics that Fox uses. It’s still worth getting out there, because I actually got more feedback from people who saw me on Fox than I generally do if I’ve been on other outlets.

Sarah Durham: Well and it’s interesting too because you are obviously out there speaking about issues that are right at the forefront of the national conversation. You’re probably in a hotter seat than most of the listeners of this podcast will hopefully find themselves in. Let’s talk about how you prepare for that. If you are a novice to media relations, do you recommend media training? How have you gotten yourself up to snuff so you can handle those situations?

Vince Warren: Media training is, I think, a necessity. I think for any novice or new executive director or leader that’s been around for a while but just doesn’t do this, you’re thinking, “Ugh, that’s the last thing I need is another training session. What are they going to tell me that I don’t know?” But there are a lot of tools and techniques that are actually really key to getting your message across. Sometimes if you’re on television it doesn’t actually come out of your mouth, it comes out of your eyes, your message. People really react to how you’re delivering what you’re saying, even more than what you’re actually saying.

The relationship between facts and figures and values are really important. People react and are moved by values, and they can get really confused when we get wonky with the facts and figures, even though that’s the proof that we have that what we’re challenging is wrong. Media training, I think is really, really essential.

Sarah Durham: You’re connecting with their values. I would imagine as a lawyer, this is particularly a challenge to strip out the jargon and make it human and kind of help people relate.

Vince Warren: Oh, totally. I think it actually applies internally as well. The Center for Constitutional Rights is a union shop, and so periodically we’ll have union negotiations. When we run into a problem, I find that it’s really helpful to start negotiating from values as opposed to start negotiating from positions. It’s amazing how people will opt into the question of shared values internally, and we all have the struggle trying to message internally in our organizations, but values really gets your there. Particularly if people believe what you’re saying.

I think it’s true in the media context as well, that you’re really persuading people by inviting them to share values with you, and then leading them through a process of how you see those values being actualized.

Sarah Durham: Awesome. Just to wrap this up, if you were going to give somebody who is kind of a rookie a couple of suggestions, some dos or don’ts, or maybe if you could go back in time and coach Vince of 20 years ago, what would you say?

Vince Warren: I would say the number one thing for me, from my perspective, is talking slowly. We always have a lot to say and very little time to say it. It’s better to not get everything that you need out, but not look like an insane crazy person as you’re doing it. That’s number one.

I think number two is to stick to your message. I think one of the most valuable things is that you’re not answering the question that they’re asking. You’re there to get messages across, regardless. You don’t want to look like a jerk, you don’t want to look like you’re evasive, you want to look like you’re having fun even as you’re sweating and looking into this little box. That takes practice. I would say practice, practice, practice. You can’t have enough dry runs for a media hit that you’re going to do.

Sarah Durham: I think there’s a quote, “You don’t answer the question they’ve asked you, you answer the question you wish they had asked you.”

Vince Warren: Right, exactly.

Sarah Durham: That seems really useful. Great, well Vince, thank you very much for joining me today.

Vince Warren: It’s been great, thanks so much, Sarah.

Sarah Durham: You can find the Center for Constitutional Rights at, or follow Vince on Twitter @VinceWarren.