September 30, 2007

Friends and enemies

An interview with…


Director of Communications
ACLU of Florida

If you can’t laugh at your hate mail, don’t go into Brandon Hensler’s line of work.

“Although hate mail is never fun, there’s much humor to be found in some people’s remarks,” Hensler says. “I can always tell when we’ve done a good job communicating our message because I’ll get a barrage of email – whether with us or against us.”

The Fort Lauderdale native became Florida’s ACLU spokesman only last year, but that’s been long enough to be labeled everything from a communist (“for defending the rights of homeless advocacy groups to feed the homeless”) to “Fidel’s Miami snoop” (“for fighting to keep a children’s book on Cuba in the county school’s libraries after it was banned by the school board”).

While he officially works for ACLU of Florida, Hensler has organized his share of national coverage, and he’s often the ACLU’s go-to guy for reaching out to Spanish-language media, since he’s fluently bilingual.

“I once put together a news conference on a lawsuit victory in under 90 minutes, with representatives from every local English and Spanish TV station, radio, newspapers, the key network TV stations, the wire services, and The New York Times,” he recalls. “It was the most press that had ever shown up to one of our news conferences, and that it was on the fly made it that much more fun.”

But when you work for the ALCU, for every action, there’s usually a negative reaction.

“We champion everyone’s free speech rights – even those who disagree with us,” Hensler says. “So if they’re that mad, I must be doing something right.”

How is your job at the ACLU different than most PR jobs?

We aren’t promoting a product or service at the ACLU. Rather, we’re selling ideas and hope – hope that their constitutional rights are being protected every day.

My job is also more reactive than some people would think – a lot of media, for obvious reasons, seek out ACLU comments. But we sometimes have so many requests that we can’t always fill them, especially if it is a topic that requires a lot of research on an already busy day.

How does one become a spokesman, anyway?

I kind of just fell into it, and it’s a very small part of my overall job. I began speaking on some issues as a stand-in for our executive director. I did a good job at it and enjoyed it – and that’s a recipe for success. One key factor that has pushed me forward is that I’m bilingual, so I’m able to represent the ACLU on local and national TV and radio programs. Working with national media has been a highlight for me, since it allows me to communicate to Americans about critical issues on a national platform.

You've been quoted by so many media outlets, what advice would you give someone who's going to speak to a reporter?

Do your homework. Know who you’re talking to. And take some time to learn about the media outlet and, if possible, the person who’ll be interviewing you. Know who their audience is – that will help you frame your discussion and make it easier for the reporter to write about it. You’d likely frame a discussion differently for The New York Times or The Palm Beach Post than you would for a niche publication.

Finally, know your stuff. Never talk about something you don’t know about, and don’t be afraid to get back to a reporter if you need time to research a fact. Reporters want their end product to be as good as possible, and that includes accurate information and good sound bytes from you.

How do you rate South Florida’s media?

I have a great respect for the media in South Florida. Their competition is fierce, and on any given day, they’re chasing down a hundred stories. Additionally, their time is spread thin more than ever now that most journalists work with more than one medium – they often cover audio, video, and print for a single story.

Is communicating with print better/different than broadcast?

Communicating with different mediums is the same when you are pitching something – be up front with what you are offering, keep it short, and make sure you’ve provided the news angle. If a journalist has two equally interesting stories and you’ve made their job easier for them, they’ll be more likely to cover your story.

But once you are in an interview, things become very different. With print interviews, you have time to give background information to help the journalist fill out their story, and there’s usually more time for follow-up. But broadcast news reporters – except for news magazine shows or in-depth pieces – really just need those one- or two-line sound bytes. So when you are doing a live show, you’ve got to be able to say everything you want backward and forward and in your sleep. If you do a good job, you’ll have made yourself, your organization, and the media outlet all look good. But show up unprepared, and no one will be happy.

What's one part of your job that most folks don't realize you do?

In addition to collateral, media relations and working with our local chapters, I’m also in charge of our web environment. I manage all content, graphics, and maintenance for our public website as well as our internal Intranet.

Any amusing professional gaffes?

I once put a local chapter board member – a well-respected doctor – on a Spanish-language talk show without properly researching it. I sent him to discuss free speech issues, but he show was about the rights of KKK members to wear their garb and march. They actually sat someone next to the doctor in a white sheet and spent the whole program spouting hateful remarks, not letting anyone else make a valid comment.

Did I mention that when the debate actually heated up, they brought out women in coconut bras and bikinis? Needless to say, I was mortified.

Although the ACLU is often put in the position of defending the rights of people whose views we find appalling, this show was in poor taste. I learned my lesson the hard way: Taking a pass on a show is better than going on and not being able to properly represent your organization.

If you could surgically implant one piece of career advice into the skulls of college students and young professionals, what would it be?

Do something you enjoy, do it well, and be honest to yourself and others. We have lots of options in this world as to how we want to spend our time, and we spend a third of our lives working – so choose a field that interests you and choose an organization you’re excited to get out of bed in the morning and represent. Nothing beats the feeling of enjoying the work you do and knowing like you’re making a positive difference in the world.