Nov 11 • 59M

Lessons from a life in progressive PR

A conversation with David Fenton.

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David Roberts
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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David Fenton came of age as an activist during an era that neither I nor likely most Volts listeners experienced firsthand. He attended the Chicago 7 trial in 1968. He helped organize the famous No Nukes concert in Washington, D.C. in 1979. He worked on Nelson Mandela's campaign for the presidency of South Africa in 1994. The list goes on.

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In the middle of all that, in 1982, he founded Fenton Communications, a PR firm devoted entirely to progressive causes. It was the first such PR firm in the nation, though it has inspired many copycats since then. It has grown steadily since the ‘80s and now has offices in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, employing more than 100 people.

David Fenton
David Fenton

Fenton has just released a new book — The Activist's Media Handbook: Lessons from Fifty Years as a Progressive Agitator — that is a combination biography, photo journal, and accounting of lessons learned in the PR business. He tells the stories of his numerous campaigns over the years (alongside pages and pages of vivid images) and tries to boil down what works to capture media attention and advance progressive causes, and what doesn't.

Fenton's life story is fascinating in its own right, and he comes bearing trenchant criticisms of the climate movement, so I was eager to talk to him about the action-packed life he has led, what he has learned about working with journalists, and what the climate movement is getting wrong in its approach to communications.