Building a Movement: What I Learned from One NYC Councilman

By Brad Groznik

Gasland Documentary

One of the first public relations campaigns I worked on was promoting the environmental argument against this new form of oil and gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing. I was working for Councilman James F. Gennaro, a local elected official in the New York City Council. Though “fracking” has since become a national debate, in 2009 it was still a relatively new process and the environmental concerns were even more nascent.

I tell this story because it offered me a big lesson in how to build a passionate audience, which anyone can learn from. The anti-fracking movement began with just a few experts (scientists, academics policy makers) and a few residents directly affected by the issue – at the time oil and gas companies were offering some landowners money so they could drill on the land when New York decided to allow it.

What started as a small cadre of interested New Yorkers grew to incorporate other like-minded individuals (environmental activists, neighboring landowners) then larger and larger populations once the media began to pay attention.

Another member of the original cadre was a filmmaker named Josh Fox who took it upon himself to document the movement. The documentary he eventually put together was Gasland, which went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. 

While not everyone can honestly expect their cause to result in an Academy Award nomination, there are a few lessons you can take away from this movement. 

Start small 
The anti-fracking movement began with just a few landowners and then sprawled from there. Those first few passionate people who were tireless in their crusade built the foundation that eventually resulted in New York banning fracking. By focusing on your most passionate supporters, your cause will grow organically on a sturdy foundation.

Enlist experts
The anti-fracking movement owes a lot to the politicians and scientists who legitimized the movement’s passion. Politicians, like Councilman Gennaro, have the soapbox to turn an interest group into a movement and by finding your cause’s experts, you can capitalize on the momentum you build with your passionate audience.

Tell your story well
Not every movement will have a Josh Fox to tell its story so it’s imperative that you figure out how to tell your story. I’ve talked about how to tell a story so it’s something your mother could understand. A cause is no different. If you want to generate exposure, tell your story well and tell it over and over.