Fri, Apr 18, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Tibet's supporters use publicity coup to fight oppression

By Stephanie Clifford  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Still, he said, his firm's advice has been welcome.

"I think increasingly we are seeing Chinese - both private companies and the government sector - increasingly trying to understand how to be more effective in an international environment, and that includes things like understanding and working with international-level communications and PR agencies," Heimowitz said. "They're trying."

On the other side, the protesters use an approach that is one part strategy, one part necessity. The groups, largely financed by individual donations, have little money for advertisements.

"Our organizations are relatively small, and the only way to get the word out is through the media," said Wangchuk Shakabpa, a board member of the US Tibet Committee.

To get that word out, the International Tibet Support Network, a London-based group that coordinates pro-Tibet organizations, has been sending news-media-focused bulletins to its 153 member organizations.

"We've been sending out regular daily summaries," said Alison Reynolds, the group's executive director, "of what's news, what's happening, what are the key political developments, who said what about the situation in Tibet."

Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), a member of the international organization, sends out its own talking points, press release templates and protest plans to its 650 chapters. That is supplemented by two Students for a Free Tibet Facebook cause pages, which now have about 37,900 members and a YouTube page where organizers post reports and footage from protests.

Every other month, Students for a Free Tibet holds conferences for members of pro-Tibet groups, where media training is a focus. The sessions cover everything from giving a good sound bite to answering reporters' questions artfully.

"SFT realizes that the media is a very effective tool getting our message across," Mendoza said. "One way that we ensure that our message stays on point and is disseminated to audiences it's targeted to, is by training our SFT-ers to be the best media spokespeople themselves."

With an eye toward demonstrations that will get coverage, SFT also holds weeklong "action camps" four times a year. Attendees learn to organize protests and deal with the police and are trained in attention-getting activities like rappeling and guerrilla street theater.

The Tibet groups' approach has, at least in recent weeks, shifted the focus from the Darfur cause.

But "more pressure on China to do something is better," said Jill Savitt, executive director of Dream for Darfur. "I have been really impressed with the turnout and the moral fierceness of how they have mobilized."

The focus on the Olympics has brought an unprecedented level of coordination and media focus among the Tibet support groups.

From 1951 until the late 1980s, the Tibet issue was largely a political one, said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia's Weatherhead East Asian Institute. In 1987, an influential article by one-time Carter adviser Roberta Cohen about China's human-rights record created interest in Tibet among non-Tibetans.

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