Wired Strategies Publications
Who Cares magazine, Summer 1998
Diary of an Internet Campaign
by John Aravosis

    Whipping up public outrage is no easy task.  You have to inform people about your issue, inspire them to rally around your grievance, use their anger to interest the media, and then direct all the negative publicity you've created to the offending party.  It can be a long, involved process.  But what if you only have ten days?

Senior Chief Timothy R. McVeigh - same name, different guy - was a decorated 17-year veteran and chief enlisted man on a nuclear attack submarine based out of Hawaii. But, last fall, the Navy suspected Tim might be gay, so it illegally obtained his confidential email records from his Internet provider, and used those records to initiate discharge proceedings against him.

His only hope was to create enough public indignation around the circumstances of his firing to convince the Department of Defense to reverse its decision-it seemed impossible to achieve in the time he had left. It wasn't: Using the Internet, we roused the public in less than two weeks.

Any nonprofit organization that wants to gain attention for a neglected cause can use our techniques. Just remember, the Internet is not a substitute for tried-and-true lobbying tactics. While it got our message out to a lot of people quickly, we still recruited an army of friends to help us, worked the phones, and even schmoozed a little.

Here's a blow-by-blow account of how we got the word out:

THE PREVIOUS FOUR MONTHS
Tim had tried to fight back. He contacted the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit that specialized in helping servicemembers harmed by the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy. He emailed all his friends, asking that they contact Members of Congress on his behalf, but to no avail-outside of Hawaii, Tim's message didn't resonate. Few had heard of his plight, and his discharge was set for January 15.

DAY ONE-Tuesday, January 6.
I receive Tim's email and forward it to all of my friends with a note saying that I hoped they would contact their Representatives and the President. I also write to Tim suggesting that he play up the violation-of-privacy angle because it would appeal to the widest possible audience. That evening, I email him and offer my services for free. He accepts.

DAY TWO-Wednesday, January 7.
We need a sympathetic ear-and some credibility-fast. I need to prove to people that, despite Tim's unfortunate name, my requests for help aren't a bad joke. We kick off the campaign by arranging an interview with Tim on PlanetOut (www.planetout.com), a large, gay-oriented Web site.

I ask Tim to place a copy of a sworn transcript from his discharge proceeding on his Web site. In it, the Navy admits under oath that they obtained his confidential email information in violation of his Internet provider's own privacy policies. We can use the transcript to enrage the public and convince the press that there's meat to our story. A friend forwards yesterday's email plea to a New York Times reporter, who is now investigating. I send her an email offering more information about the case.

DAY THREE-Thursday, January 8.
I write a two-page story about Tim's plight which points readers to the Web interview for more information. I email the story to friends, colleagues, and a variety of mass-distribution lists. In the meantime, I call several friends-including an online activist, a public relations expert, and a reporter. The online activist starts calling her friends and contacting the online media. The public relations expert assists in drafting email press releases. And the reporter asks me for an email containing two story pitches-one explaining Tim's plight in general terms, and the other geared towards the business media. He forwards them to reporters around the country. U.S. News & World Report receives it and calls me for an interview.
 
I also seek the assistance of two nonprofits: the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).  They start speaking to reporters on our behalf. EPIC passes our story to CNet, one of the largest news Web sites.   I interview with reporters from CNet and the San Francisco Chronicle.

DAY FOUR-Friday, January 9.
Tim's story is the lead on the New York Times' Web site. His Internet closes down his email account, saying his online activism is "abuse." I immediately issue an email update blasting them for shutting Tim down in his time of need. A rival Internet provider responds by providing Tim a lifetime email account for free, with a guarantee of privacy. That afternoon, CNet runs a front page story about Tim. A friend at GLAAD, the gay rights organization, issues an email alert to their extensive mailing list.
 
That evening, I attend a cocktail party with a number of national reporters, including some from National Public Radio. I pitch Tim's story to all of them. Later at home, I visit AOL chat rooms and ask if folks have seen the New York Times piece about Timothy McVeigh. Lively discussions ensue.

DAY FIVE-Saturday, January 10. 
The San Francisco Chronicle writes about Tim's case on page 3. U.S. News & World Report hits the stand with two paragraphs on Tim's plight.

DAY SIX-Sunday, January 11. 
The New York Times Web site does another story, this one about Tim's email account being closed down.  My cyber-activist friend, Barbara Bode, has pitched the story to a friend at the Washington Post - the newspaper is now investigating,  I email the Post reporter with offer for assistance. The reporter interviews me.

DAY SEVEN-Monday, January 12. 
The Washington Post publishes a front-section story on Tim's case, with a quick blurb on the front page. That opens the floodgates: Before nightfall, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, "Good Morning America," CBS, MSNBC, and National Public Radio have all contacted us. ABC invites us to appear on next evening's "World News Tonight." With three days left, we crank up the pressure. I issue daily-and sometimes several times a day-email press releases.

DAY EIGHT-Tuesday, January 13. 
The Associated Press picks up our story. In the morning, Tim and I are interviewed on National Public Radio. In the evening, we appear on ABC News. The Internet provider's representative is on ABC as well, saying that "someone" in this case broke the law. To fuel the controversy between the provider and the Navy, I issue a press release quoting that interview and asking who broke the law.

DAY NINE-Wednesday, January 14. 
MSNBC prints a blistering story in favor of Tim on their Web site. A top lawyer hears of Tim's case and offers to sue the Navy on his behalf.

DAY TEN-Thursday, January 15. 
The Navy, faced with Tim's lawsuit and the attention of nearly every American media outlet, backs down and gives Tim a week reprieve.

On January 29, a federal judge found the Navy guilty of violating Tim's privacy rights, and reinstated him.  While the Navy has appealed, Tim is on the job today.

-John Aravosis 
John Aravosis is the founder of Wired Strategies (www.wiredstrategies.com), a Washington, D.C.-based Internet consulting firm.

Click here to find out more about the
Timothy McVeigh online advocacy campaign.

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