Lessons for Communicators from the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Communications was a vital part of the movement that stopped legal discrimination against gays and lesbians in the U.S. military in 2011. (A similar ban on discrimination of transgender persons didn’t come until June 30, 2016).  

Aaron Belkin, the founder of Palm Center, was at the center of the effort. He led a 10-year communications campaign to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “Probably no single person deserves more credit for the repeal,” Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley said of Belkin.

Belkin was a plenary speaker last month in Detroit at ComNet16, the annual conference of The Communications Network. Along with my colleague Jenna Cerruti, I had the chance to hear Belkin’s remarks. Here are key lessons for communicators that he shared:

Never Lose Focus On Your Audience

“Our ultimate aim was the White House, Congress, judiciary and Pentagon,” said Belkin. And his plan was to reach them through national network news programs and newspapers like The New York Times popular with policymakers in Washington, DC.

Belkin admitted it was an old-fashioned strategy. But it made sense because those were the news outlets that mattered to the people he wanted to influence.

New Reports Let You Make The Same Point Again (and Again)

People believed in the 1990s that gays and lesbians did harm the military, said Belkin. His response: Produce new research reports every year that found different ways to show this wasn’t the case.

“The trick was not to let the research stay on the shelf,” said Belkin. “Every three or four months we worked hard to generate headlines. We worked to get a new national story making the same point in a slightly different way.”

Research Without Media Attention Doesn’t Sway Audiences

Other organizations before Palm Center had produced research showing gays and lesbians didn’t hurt the military. But Belkin said the reports weren’t getting noticed.

“A research study that doesn’t get media coverage is not valuable in DC,” said Belkin. “It only becomes useful if it gets media coverage.”

Great Spokespeople Make All the Difference

“We were pitching research based on a stale message,” acknowledged Belkin. “Our research was never newsworthy unless we had great spokespeople who could illustrate the points.”

Belkin cited the example of a study about gays and lesbians in the British military. That report didn’t interest The New York Times until Belkin found a British submariner who had been fired and reinstated to talk about the experience. Hard data combined with human interest stories earned the most attention from media outlets.

Every Strategy Has it Downsides

“Our strategy was not cost free,” admitted Belkin. “We couldn’t talk about the downsides of militarization: Wars or sexual harassment.”

But Belkin didn’t see another path to getting to repeal. “It was so dangerous to have government fire people based on who they are.”

Want to learn about about the campaign Belkin led?  See How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which Arianna Huffington referred to as a, “best practices guide for civil rights fights.” Or read this recent interview with Aaron Belkin in The Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Mac Prichard

Mac started Prichard Communications in 2007 to serve nonprofits, foundations and public agencies after a long career working in the public and nonprofit sectors and with elected officials. Mac lives in Portland’s Ladd’s Addition where he is often spotted taking Instagram photos while walking his dog Kai, a Weimaraner.
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