The Activist’s Media Handbook
Title: The Activist's Media Handbook: Lessons from Fifty Years as a Progressive Agitator
Published by: Earth Aware Editions
Release Date: November 1, 2022
Activist and public relations thought leader David Fenton shares lessons on how to organize successful media campaigns, cultivated from more than half a century working within some of history’s most impactful social movements.
In an extraordinary career David Fenton has learned first-hand what to do—and not to do—to propel progressive causes into the public eye and create real, impactful, lasting change.
A visionary activist, Fenton has been the driving force behind some of the most important and history-making campaigns of the last 50 years, from the No-Nukes concerts with Bruce Springsteen in 1979, to the campaigns to free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid in the late 1980s, exposing the dangers of toxic chemicals in our food, the long battle to legalize marijuana and end racist drug laws, the misinformation in Washington during the Bush era in the 2000s, and recent campaigns that successfully banned fracking in New York and alerted the public to the climate crisis, including the environmental impact of Bitcoin.
Reflecting on his life, with tales of living in a commune, photographing riots and rock stars, working at Rolling Stone and High Times magazines rabble-rousing with Abbie Hoffman, and collaborating with presidents and celebrities, David tells the fascinating story of how he developed the strategies and tactics that have made him a successful media agitator. David then shows how these tools can be used by anyone to advance their cause.
Part rollercoaster memoir, part practical guide, The Activist's Media Handbook provides an essential toolkit for today’s activists for organizing to win: how to tell your story, captivate audiences, and inspire them to join the cause.
“David Fenton has helped progressive activists reach the media and public since the late 1960s. In the struggles against apartheid, the nuclear arms race, unjust wars, racist drug laws, to stop climate and toxic pollution, his work has helped movements advance justice.”
“David Fenton has spent decades helping advocates for human rights and social justice reach the public. His emphasis on communicating climate science is essential if we are to preserve an open society — and healthy environment — in the face of propaganda, denial and distortion.”
“David is the dean of progressive communications. As his memoir shows, there is no one who has done more to help the progressive community build public support for its causes through powerful and effective messaging.”
—Ken Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
“Activists need to be communicators and story-tellers. David Fenton knows this at his core and has helped the environmental and climate movement reach the public for decades. I’ve worked with him to win a ban on fracking in New York and on the fossil fuel divestment movement.”
—Mark Ruffalo, actor and activist
“The service rendered to the African National Congress by Fenton Communications during the difficult years, has been of great value to us. The technical skill of your company, as well as your company’s commitment to worthy causes, is beyond doubt.”
—Nelson Mandela, June 28, 1994, in a letter to the author
“I met David in 1970 when we were both teenagers in the movement. I had a clenched fist as a Black Panther. David had a camera that captured my fire and innocence. His memoir is a guide for activists who need to be good storytellers to win.”
—Jamal Joseph, Writer, Director, author of “Panther Baby”
Professor of Film, Columbia University
“David is the progressive world’s chief evangelist on the importance of communications and language in social movements. His help was essential in MoveOn’s campaigns on climate, economic justice, criminal justice reform, and against the nuclear arms race and the Iraq war.”
—Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, co-founders of MoveOn.org
“Climate activists too often believe the truth will set us free. Our facts are right, so leaders should act. Decades of political paralysis have proved that wrong. Fenton lays out key lessons on how to communicate the truth in ways that actually reach and move people - in other words, how to win. Packed with distilled lessons, important history and good storytelling, Fenton’s book is essential reading for anyone on a mission to make change.”
—Annie Leonard, Co-Executive Director Greenpeace USA, author of The Story of Stuff
“Any student of American history in the last half-century will profit from this inside account--and anyone trying to make change now will profit from grappling with these hard-earned lessons.”
—Bill McKibben, author and activist
“The first step to tackling climate change is to talk about it. David Fenton has been helping scientists and NGOs do this for more than three decades and over that time, he’s learned a lot. This book lays out basic principles of effective climate communication. It’s a must-read for anyone seeking to raise public awareness and encourage climate action.”
—Katharine Hayhoe, Distinguished Professor at Texas Tech University, United Nations Champion of the Earth, author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World
“David Fenton is a social change strategist, magician and performance artist. He's built some of the most effective campaigns across the progressive landscape over the past fifty-plus years - with humor, clarity, moral indignation and a wry sense of the absurd. Bravo, David!”
—Michael Brune, former Executive Director, Sierra Club
Foreword by George Lakoff
If progressives lose the future, it will not be due to a lack of good policy ideas. If we lose the future, ceding democracy to authoritarians or bad corporate actors, it will be due mostly to a stunning failure to communicate with people in simple language that connects with them on the level of their moral values. And it will be due to a stubborn rejection of tried-and-true scientific methods of mass communications—methods that conservatives have repeatedly deployed to winning effect.
Introduction: For More Than Fifty Years, I Have Been a Progressive Media Activist
This book combines the lessons I’ve learned with vignettes from my life, which largely parallels the story of the modern Left in the United States. I started as a teenage, high school dropout photojournalist shooting riots and rock stars for the underground press of the ’60s. Then I became a hippie activist, living in a commune that took over the Ann Arbor, Michigan, city government in the early 1970s, when we legalized pot and opened free day care and medical centers. After working at High Times and Rolling Stone magazines, I coproduced the 1979 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In 1982, I created the first public relations firm dedicated solely to progressive causes—Fenton Communications. We helped many activist groups reverse the nuclear arms race, free Nelson Mandela from prison, end apartheid, boost sales of organic foods, fight the death penalty and a racist criminal “justice” system, oppose America’s imperial adventures abroad, and fight for clean energy and a livable climate. The firm is still at it, and so am I.