When tenants organize and work together, they level the playing field against a more powerful opponent, the landlord. To reduce that power disparity even further—and to accumulate more power than your landlord—you need even broader support than that provided by your tenant association and its members. Many of the tactics described in this chapter are used to help you get that important outside support.
1. Accessing the Media
Traditional forms of media—newspapers, television, radio (which also have an online presence) and social media – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube —can be very powerful tools for tenants. Most landlords are not interested in getting bad publicity. Tenants who are trying to save and improve their homes, protect elderly people in their buildings, and build the spirit of the neighborhood can use the media as a way to make the case for change.
Before you contact media outlets of any kind or post any video or messages online you should think through an overall media strategy because you want good press, not press that puts the tenants in a negative light. Positive media attention is a way for tenants to publicly state their demands and proposed solution and thus continue to put pressure on a landlord.
Contacting the press is a step that should be agreed to by your group. You should discuss the pros and cons of publicizing what is happening. If the group agrees to contact the media but no one is willing to talk to reporters, don't make the contact.
If you decide to contact the press, you will need to develop your message because you are helping reporters shape the story. Whoever speaks to the press on behalf of the group should clarify with the group what is important to say before speaking to a reporter. One way to do this is to caucus with key leaders about what the message should be.8 Some questions to ask to clarify the message are:
Media Caucus Checklist: Questions to Ask in Preparing for the Media
- What is the problem?
- How does the problem hurt tenants?
- What is a good example of the problem?
- Who is responsible for the problem?
- What solutions are tenants proposing?
- What is the main message?
- What visuals support the message?
- What spokespeople would best communicate this message?
- What are good, short soundbites?
- What are the hard questions that the media might ask tenants?
It is important when speaking to the press not only to be prepared, but also to speak from the heart. Those who plan to speak to the press should also practice telling their story and responding to questions. Role-playing is a good way to practice.
Getting media coverage is also about building relationships with reporters. Before contacting a reporter by phone, send her a 1- or 2-page press release. Send the press release to a reporter whom you want to do the story. You may have to research this to find out who might cover your story. If you don't know a particular reporter, send your release to the news department and follow up with a phone call. Your press release should include important facts, quotes by tenants, a description of your group, and a name and phone number of a person the reporter can contact. To get a reporter's attention, you will also need to have a good "hook" or lead sentence in your press release. For example: "The Board of Health has cited _______________ (landlord's name) with over 50 violations of the state Sanitary Code." See Sample Press Release (Form 29). A “hook” may also be an event or action. For example: “Residents will protest today outside landlord’s offices about terrible conditions at apartment building.”
Because reporters are very busy and are often working on deadlines, the more prepared you are the more receptive they may be. If you have documents such as inspection reports, show these to the reporter.
Letters to the editor are a good way to get an organization's message into a local paper. The advantage of a letter is that the whole group can sign it so it does not seem like one person is speaking for the group. Every news outlet now has an online presence and it is much easier to respond to articles and editorials by submitting comments online.
Tenant associations have also achieved success by linking their building's issues with larger policy issues that are in the news. For example, some groups have linked their story about opposing rent increases to the need to support broader rent regulation policies and affordable housing needs.
Some tenant associations have also created their own website because media may look to see if a group has a website for background purposes on the issue and to check on the legitimacy of the group. Websites are increasingly easy to make through sites such as Wordpress.com, Tumblr and Google pages. Another option is a Facebook page with posts of demands, photos and videos of events and actions. A Facebook page may be less time consuming than starting and managing a website.
A good resource about how to do media work is SPIN Works! A Media Guidebook for the Rest of Us, by Robert Bray.
Depending on your situation, at some point, you may want to contact community groups and community leaders to help support your position. People who live in the building may have a connection with a local group such as a club, a church, a labor union, or a community development corporation. You can ask a community group for letters of support, help with an event, meeting space, or the use of a computer. If you have collected letters of support, you can use them in a press release. This will make your situation more newsworthy, too. Community leaders can also come to rallies and speak out in support of tenants. You won't get support, however, unless you ask for it.
2. Political Support
Tenant groups who are fighting to improve their buildings and save their properties have developed important support from local, state, and national politicians. Whenever you ask for a politician's support, it is always important to think through this strategy. For example, it is not always a good idea to get politicians involved right at the outset. A politician may not do what she says she will do. She might turn against the group and support the landlord. She may have her own agenda. She may try to act as a mediator between you and the landlord without your wanting her to do this.
On the other hand, a politician may actively support your cause. She may speak out at a rally because she wants to be seen as a leader on the issue of affordable housing and get the exposure. Seeing that the people in your building are voters, she may write a letter to your landlord supporting your demands. She may send a letter to a government agency supporting your request for funding.
Figure out who your elected officials are from town or city council level, to Massachusetts State House, to the United States Congress. Once identified try to research what particular interests or concerns those elected officials have that may be helpful to your situation. For example, you may find that your state Senator or Representative is on the Housing Committee or that a local city councilor grew up in subsidized housing. It is very important to develop a relationship with your elected officials.
To figure out who your state or national elected official is, see href="http://www.malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator" target="_blank" title="Find a Legislator">Find a Legislator.
To get the support or attention of elected officials, make sure that all tenants in the group are registered to vote, if they are eligible to do so. Getting the support of neighbors who are registered voters also makes sense. Registering to vote is easy. Contact your city or town hall and ask for voter registration forms and procedures.
8 . The idea of a media caucus has been developed jointly by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Media Research Action Project at Boston College. The checklist in this book has been adapted from their materials.