Two months ago, activist Bree Newsome shimmied up a flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina State House and took down the Confederate battle flag.
“I come against you in the name of God,” she told responding police officers, who arrested her as soon as she and the flag touched the ground.
Newsome and her partner, James Tyson, were charged with defacing public property. The flag was flying again 45 minutes later.
Video of the event immediately spread on social media. Television pundits and online commentators praised or derided the activists’ tactics. In the wake of growing tumult, newspaper editorials, including one in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, wondered whether the real Reconstruction might be at hand. And the president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People described Newsome’s feat as one of the most meaningful acts of civil disobedience since Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat on the bus.
But on the morning of the flag operation, before the drone of social media could echo the news, a phone was ringing upstairs in an old Fan house near Virginia Commonwealth University.
Trevor FitzGibbon answered from his bed with the kind of exhaustion that might issue from a 45-year-old who’s just bought a new house, moved his family’s belongings from Washington, and has a new set of twin babies in his arms with another young child asleep next to him.
“I was feeding the twins when I got the text that the flag was down,” FitzGibbon says. “We blasted out the [news] release and I was on the phone with all the networks.”
FitzGibbon is the founder and president of FitzGibbon Media, the country’s premier strategic communications group for progressive causes. He knew for a week that the flag takedown was coming, but the exact time changed when capitol security showed up unexpectedly, he says: “It was supposed to have gone down at 5:45 a.m.”
Careful not to claim too much credit, FitzGibbon says that usually multiple organizations are involved with any progressive action. In this case, he hired the videographer, created the news release, trained people on the ground on how to deliver their message, and juggled the huge volume of media requests and appearances.
“Bree was one of at least nine people involved and she just happened to be the one to go up,” he says, naming other participants as the Blackbird activist group and his own client, Color of Change, which helped fund the effort and which FitzGibbon describes as “the next generation’s NAACP.”
But increasingly, it’s FitzGibbon Media that gets the first call whenever a huge progressive moment is about to happen anywhere in the country.
“We always want to be on the cutting edge of those moments that history will look back on as important,” FitzGibbon says. “For the most part it’s been domestic so far, but now we’re starting to do it internationally.”
With voting trends changing throughout his new purple state of Virginia, and plenty of room for progressive growth, he might also be positioning himself in a key political battleground state for 2016. But today he has other concerns.
Newsome and her partner face three years in prison and a $5,000 fine, while another client, Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, is trying to appeal her 30-year sentence, imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth for espionage in the WikiLeaks dump.
Back in Richmond, their champion is working hard for their interests, among many national clients, while simultaneously trying to figure out how to rig up a twin stroller without car-seat adaptors.
Inside the FitzGibbons’ new Richmond home on a summer weekday, the family is in the process of settling into new surroundings.
Picture frames lie on tables; there’s a large room of scattered toys where a young nanny sits with the family’s oldest daughter; a couple of pest control employees are leaving the house. Flat-screen televisions hang in several places, including the kitchen, so that the news cycle can be monitored constantly. Around the high-ceilinged rooms are photos and paintings featuring friends from entertainment and political worlds, including a photo of FitzGibbon with WikiLeaks’ notorious editor-in-chief, Julian Assange.
FitzGibbon and his wife fell in love with the Fan District during a visit to town. They hope to raise their young family in a pleasant, slower-paced Southern city.
“My wife is very Southern. And really I feel so much more effective outside of the beltway,” FitzGibbon says. “Too many distractions in D.C. or New York.”
FitzGibbon sits upstairs in his office at a large, uncluttered desk with only a laptop computer and phone. Every few minutes, a fire detector’s battery alarm beeps high above. It doesn’t bother him: “I’m used to so much worse,” he says, adding that he hasn’t had chance to buy a ladder yet.
The phone on his desk rings periodically and you can tell by the way he quickly responds that FitzGibbon is adept at multitasking and predicting responses. His mind always seems to skip two or three questions ahead. “The SATs were hard for me,” he says. “But being in four different conversations at once is not.”
FitzGibbon doesn’t chase business, he says, often preferring to get involved on a pro-bono basis early. “Often times before there’s even a client, we step in to help blow up moments in time,” he says. “What we’ve found is people just come to us, other organizations want to be a part of it.”
The clients are as wide-ranging as Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, MoveOn, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communication Workers of America, IFC Films, the Guardian, United Way and WikiLeaks.
When the National Security Agency domestic spying story broke, former CIA employee Edward Snowden was holed up in Hong Kong and WikiLeaks was working to get him asylum. With FitzGibbon, the organization arranged a media briefing on Snowden and his status.
“Snowden was getting immediately attacked, like he must be a Chinese or Russian spy,” FitzGibbon recalls, adding that he corralled Assange and Vietnam-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg for the conference. “So I’m standing in my backyard and suddenly there are 600 journalists on the phone.”
Jesselyn Radack, director of National Security and Human Rights for the Government Accountability Project and one of Snowden’s lawyers, says by e-mail that FitzGibbon’s pro bono work was “invaluable.”
He got her and Snowden’s other lawyers onto the Sunday morning talk shows, Radack says. “He was also instrumental to events like ‘Restore the Fourth,’ where I read a statement from [Snowden].”
FitzGibbon media has “a veritable Who’s Who” of leading organizations and public figures in the progressive world, Radack says: “While big PR firms may have more name cachet, FitzGibbon media makes up for it with genuine concern for client well-being, not just placing a story.”
But it’s about more than making waves, FitzGibbon says. “With Congress so polarized and dysfunctional, we tend to work with whoever we need to, issue-by-issue, to see policy created,” he says. “That’s how the U.S. Freedom Act was passed post-Snowden, completely bipartisan.”
After Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, FitzGibbon sent his staff there to assess the situation and work with youth voices, friends of Michael Brown, to help set up interviews and get their message out. “We wanted local voices to have a voice in the ensuing national media,” he says. “And we did it.”
“Trevor is really good at linking people and ideas and pulling people together,” says Bertis Downs, manager and advisor for the band R.E.M., occasionally referred to as a fifth member by the band. “He’s built a good team of people and they care a lot about the issues. They work hard and they’re effective.”
Downs says the band started working with FitzGibbon on environmental issues when he was in his early 20s. The band may have broken up, he says, but “we’ve continued working with him on certain things, supporting his clients on social media. Michael [Stipe] has been particularly involved in LGBT issues and the big-data stuff that Trevor worked on with WikiLeaks.”
Recently, the band publicly supported a legal defense fund for Manning and her appeal. FitzGibbon visits Manning occasionally, runs her social media accounts, and with the help of journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, quickly raised more than $155,000.
In today’s noisy and crowded media climate, it’s no longer enough for organizations to deliver petitions signed by a million people to Congress, FitzGibbon says, or to call elected officials and write letters to editors.
“In order to break through, groups need to take it up a notch,” he says. “All the letters in the world wouldn’t change Sen. Diane Feinstein’s mind on drones. What changed her mind was when an activist flew a remote powered plane outside her window. Then she understood a little more how those opposed feel about drones.”
Such activism is unsettling to some people, too. Who does it right?
“When I look at different issues — the LGBT issue, that fight for equality — they did it the right way,” he says. “They got involved legally, legislatively, with direct actions. But they also worked with Hollywood and pop culture and got storylines so that the issue became part of the fabric of our lives.”
For a white kid from Lynchburg, FitzGibbon says a definitive moment in his early teen years was when Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, was assassinated. He says he became obsessed with Latin American politics and the CIA’s role in that part of the world.
FitzGibbon describes himself as a “hell-raiser in school” without much of an attention span for academics. “When you don’t do well in school your self-esteem is shot,” he says. “But I was passionate about issues such as the environment.”
That carries over today. “When hiring, I don’t really look first for the academic stars,” he says. “I look for people who have a proven track record of action.”
FitzGibbon attended Hampden-Sydney College for two years, where he was in the former fraternity of alumnus Stephen Colbert.
“Trevor was one of the few progressive guys there and he could debate with the best of them,” recalls friend Brian Baucom, a startup entrepreneur based in North Carolina. “He was resourceful, always ready to leave town — which you have to be there or you’ll go insane.”
After two years, FitzGibbon dropped out and moved to Philadelphia to begin knocking on doors for the state Public Interest Research Group as a door-to-door canvasser for the environment. The first time was to get a recycling bill passed. “My mom had been an organizer in the civil rights movement and worked for Kennedy,” he says. “So I already had that gene.”
FitzGibbon then moved to Seattle to help start the first Sierra Club canvas office, and worked with Clean Up Congress in 1994, running campaigns in Virginia to help defeat Oliver North’s bid for the U.S. Senate. While in the Northwest, he began working with Washington Wilderness Coalition to protect old-growth forests, at the same time forging connections in the political arena by working on campaigns for environmental candidates such as Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
With the Wilderness Coalition going broke at the time, FitzGibbon put together a Seattle benefit concert at the Crocodile bar with his friends the Crust Brothers, a band featuring Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and members of Silkworm, as well as openers the Minus 5, all playing material from Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes.”
“I was naïve and we raised maybe five grand,” he recalls. “But the owner of the venue was an attorney and environmentalist married to [guitarist] Peter Buck from R.E.M. We ended up with a check from RE.M. for 10 grand. Pretty soon I was in a helicopter with Peter riding over old growth forest and working on press releases with the band.”
Still in his 20s, FitzGibbon, together with R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, wrote a letter to then Vice President Al Gore to request a sit-down, face-to-face meeting.
“That was the first press release I ever sent out,” FitzGibbon recalls, laughing. “And it blew up in the media. The White House was freaking out. It was all part of an overall national strategy with several bigger national groups. When I saw it on MTV I remember thinking: ‘This really is what I want to do.’”
FitzGibbon saw that the timber industry had moved to the South toward private land, where environmental laws were less stringent. So he moved to Washington, D.C. Around 2002, he was hired by progressive PR outfit Fenton to push back against the drive for war in Iraq by President George W. Bush’s administration.
“After 9/11,” he says, “they wanted me to get experts who had worked for Bush’s father to speak out against the war in Iraq.”
One of his first clients was MoveOn.org. FitzGibbon recalls planning to buy a full-page ad in The New York Times that was a remake of the famous nuclear disarmament daisy ad with the ticking doomsday clock. The goal was to raise $50,000 for the print ad, but an e-mail campaign ended up with over $200,000 in small donations. So the print ad became a television commercial. It was a watershed moment: Move On was the first to have big success with the small donation fundraising model — the same one Barack Obama used on his road to the presidency.
In 2008, FitzGibbon went to be a communications director for the Obama campaign during the New Mexico primary. Riding high on the success of the election, and flush with new media contacts, he felt it was finally time start his own strategy firm.
He started from his couch with two clients: Global Zero, an international movement dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons, and the New York University Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, which works with detainees and people who have been tortured.
Six years later, he has 30 people on staff with offices in London, New York, San Francisco and Washington, as well as employees in Nashville and Athens, Georgia.
“It’s booming right now, which is kind of hilarious considering I didn’t even graduate from college,” he says. “For me, it’s an example of basing your business on principle rather than profit. The profit will come.”
FitzGibbon Media also maintains an artist-action side, which has worked with big-name musicians including Dave Matthews, Paul McCartney, Steve Earle and Yoko Ono — often connecting musicians with his clients’ causes.
In one early campaign, FitzGibbon helped a number of music celebrities including Trent Reznor, the Roots, David Byrne, and Roseanne Cash to file a Freedom of Information Act request to figure out whose music was used to torture detainees at Guantanamo: “That was out of the box,” he says, laughing.
His connection with R.E.M. also altered his life in a different way.
For years, whenever he worked with the group, FitzGibbon spoke with an employee named Meredith who was lead singer Stipe’s personal assistant for more than a decade. In 2008, the band was performing on the “Today Show” and FitzGibbon was invited to attend. He recalls being stunned when he finally met Meredith in person.
“It was literally love at first sight,” he says. They attended a concert by the band later that night at Jones Beach with activist comedian Janeane Garofalo and others. “We pretty much knew right away.”
The couple soon married, with R.E.M performing the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” at their reception party.
Early on, his wife used her own experience to help with the artist action side of the company. Now she’s busy raising their children.
“Trevor’s doing what he was born to do,” Meredith says. “He’s surrounded himself with great people who are equally passionate. It’s not a 9 to 5 job — it’s nights, weekends, holidays — but I believe in what he’s doing and I’m inspired by it.”
FitzGibbon seems a little concerned with how he’ll be received after this article is published. He’s still unsure of the climate in Richmond.
“In today’s terminology, progressive is used to describe the more leftist part of the Democratic Party,” says Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “But there are fewer people today that describe themselves as moderates on both sides. Those old geographical divides don’t exist anymore. … And it’s that much harder to reach consensus.”
Skelley notes that FitzGibbon may view Virginia as a good home base because it was a bellwether state in the last two presidential elections — “You can make an argument it’s the most important swing state,” he says. And because, with most of its major Democrats moderate or center-left, the state might feel like fertile territory to a specialist in progressive politics.
“Virginia is going to be in the middle of everything in 2016,” Skelley says, “and with a Democratic governor and close Clinton ally — it’s going to be key.”
FitzGibbon already has one national client about to unveil a Virginia campaign that he can’t yet discuss. He says there’s tremendous momentum here with platforms such as the Virginia Progressive Action Network and Equality Virginia.
“For a guy like Tom Perriello to win that Charlottesville [congressional district] a few cycles ago — he ran a heroic race, that was incredible,” he says. “Times are changing and more and more people are moving here. But the conservative, Southern, genteel politics are being replaced by an increasingly angry tea party base that does the talking now. And at the end of the day, I just don’t think the changing demographic is too comfortable with that.”
As for younger activists, he worries that not enough of them respect those who led the way. “You really need to learn and respect the history of issues,” he says. “I think we’ve grown up in an Internet age where people think they can get or do whatever they want when they want. At the end of the day, that’s going to bite you in the ass.”
Still key are one-on-one relationships, organizing people where they are and paying attention to everything — not only your cause.
“You’re not going to force the news to carry the message. You have to know where the media already is on the issue and figure out how to take your client’s message and fit that into what the media needs.”
And that can be an all-encompassing proposal. “This is not a job, it’s an extension of who I am,” he says. “To be involved in these moments, it feeds my soul.” S