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Putting the Progressive in PR

"To most Americans," says the activist consultant, PR means " 'We'll say anything for money.' We're not like that. We have a point of view." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

In the PR pantheon, Fenton Communications is a mid-size company, not as vast as Fleishman-Hillard or Burson-Marsteller, which have offices all over the world and hundreds of employees, but larger than others, including the right-tilting Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, an Alexandria-based firm that represents conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association and Stophernow.com, an anti-Hillary Clinton Web site.

One major focus of Fenton's life is to promote opposition to the U.S. engagement in Iraq. He has tried to pull together various organizations that oppose the war; he has helped start other groups. Former Democratic congressman Tom Andrews of Maine runs Win Without War from Fenton's office.

At a news conference for the March to Stop the War in October 2002, Fenton met Eli Pariser of the then-fast-growing antiwar community MoveOn.org. "The last antiwar movement people had seen was 30 years ago," says Pariser, executive director of MoveOn. "It was very countercultural. David noticed that this time around, it was a different kind of movement -- much more mainstream. It looked like America." Fenton was "really working to demonstrate this wasn't a fringe movement," Pariser says.

"The thing that's special about him," Pariser adds , "is that in the consulting class, there are a lot of people who make a lot of money by preaching timidity and caution. Consultants don't generally tell their clients to take big risks. It's easier to take small steps. David doesn't have that instinct."

Fenton Communications has never done a political campaign. Fenton prefers to work on policy. Besides, he says, "campaigns are a burnout."

An Al Gore campaign might be an exception. For the past few years, Fenton has been editing Gore's rousing antiwar speeches. "He is the first person I have gotten to know personally who is a possible candidate, so that makes a difference," Fenton says. "But the country is in such perilous shape, if someone wanted me involved, I would probably do it."

Recently, Fenton has also been working with first lady Laura Bush on a campaign to fight malaria in Africa.

He appears hyper-relaxed. He eats mostly organic food. He runs. He doesn't smoke. He lives in Greenwich Village and is going through a divorce. His only vice at the moment appears to be a serious cellphone addiction. His ring tone sounds like an activated "Star Wars" light saber.

As more companies go green, Fenton's business expands. Increasingly he works with more corporate, for-profit groups. Stonyfield Farm yogurt company has asked him to launch an effort called ClimateCounts, which will enable consumers to use cellphone technology to purchase products from the most climate-friendly companies. He's talking with Honda about representing its efforts to make environmentally friendly cars.

On a recent spring evening, more than 100 friends and clients gather in the Sky Room of the Hotel Washington to eat finger food, listen to a subdued guitarist and celebrate Fenton's 25 years in business.

People for the American Way is represented here. So is the Environmental Working Group and the Death Penalty Information Center, which Fenton co-founded.

John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace, has known Fenton since 1992. Passacantando says Fenton "is part of this larger diaspora of players from the '60s who function at a high level."

Young activists today, Passacantando says, are energized when they work with oldsters like Fenton, "who bring a certain level of immediate talent when you are working with them directly. But more importantly they are part of the larger arc of history that we are all on."

Passacantando adds, "I don't always agree with David. He's such a noodge that whatever nice comfortable belief you have settled into, he can challenge it in an open, often acidic way."

For example, after saying hello and exchanging pleasantries with Passacantando at the Sky Room soiree, Fenton gets down to business. "We can beat nuclear power based on transportation," he says.

This time around, Fenton is not going to attack nuclear power advocates with music concerts at Madison Square Garden, but with warnings of nuclear-waste mismanagement.

"That's not how Greenpeace has been looking at the issue," Passacantando says, "but from now on we will."


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