|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
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 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.