In this month’s Insider Interview, we speak with Belle Woods. Belle is associate director of communications at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She holds a master’s degree in public administration and nonprofit management from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oregon.
Can you tell us about the American Immigration Lawyers Association and what your goal is, as a lead communicator for the organization?
AILA has a membership of more than 15,000 attorneys and law professors, most of whom are based in the United States. They practice and teach every aspect of immigration law, in firms and colleges both large and small. We aim to serve our members with continuing legal education, information and professional development, so they have everything they need to be the best immigration lawyers possible.
As a communications team, we’re doing a lot of things, but my role focuses on developing effective outreach materials for journalists, folks on the Hill and anyone wanting to know more about this issue. I also field media requests, while encouraging and facilitating op-eds to local outlets from our membership. I’m constantly urging members to write op-eds because they have so much expertise to share with the public.
Obviously, immigration has been a hot topic with a lot of media coverage. Does all of that talk help or hurt your cause?
I’m an optimist, so I think it’s an opportunity. More often we have reporters who are into getting into the weeds of immigration law. They realize that every policy change, no matter how arcane sounding, affects actual people. These issues hit home in every community in the U.S., from family impacts to business consequences and beyond. That has become more clear to reporters and producers now.
The more we can clarify misconceptions or inaccuracies about immigration law, the better, and no one is better to explain how all of that works than AILA and its members. It’s been a busy time, but it’s also been a chance to have John Oliver cover the immigration courts system, for example. We’re seeing people who didn’t understand what it meant to seek asylum suddenly understand it and even reach out to AILA to see how they can help.
How often are you updating your messaging platform?
It feels really constant these days. Our mission doesn’t shift. Our core values don’t shift. But the questions we answer every day do. We strive to ensure our members have the information they need to speak out every day.
We develop resources based on where we will be situated in the discussion. If we think reporters will reach out to members, we’ll prepare talking points, we’ll write a press statement with insights from executive leadership, and sometimes we’ll do a video if we think folks will understand the issue better with visuals.
We’re always trying to figure out what we can get to our members so they can quickly respond to reporters and share their expertise on a daily, or even hourly basis.
How do you insert AILA into the conversation?
It’s less about inserting AILA into the conversation and more about getting the right organization or person in front of the media to address a situation or question. I repeat this as many times as I need to: If you’re not the right person to answer a question, tell the reporter, and say you’ll do everything in your power to put them in touch with the right person.
We have a great coalition of advocacy organizations who can answer just about any question we are asked. And that’s important because we need to be the source of good information, whether it’s the right referral for a reporter or maybe a policy brief that explains a complicated legal issue. If we’re sharing the most relevant information, we’re doing our job.
Part of your job is overseeing the AILA media advocacy and media liaison committees. What are these groups, and how do you work with them?
That’s a favorite part of my job. Working with members is a privilege and a lot of fun. The media advocacy committee is a geographically and professionally diverse group of spokespeople who we can call on to answer reporters, make things digestible and help with talking points. Having a committee of folks I can reach out to and get advice from, to make sure I’m getting things right on communications front, is invaluable.
Our media liaisons are different. They’re chosen by our 39 chapters. They’re our boots on the ground media wise. A local reporter might reach out to local chapter, and they’ll answer, or we’ll help facilitate. For the communications department, they’re really our go-to at the chapter level. We’re also encouraging our chapters to have social media liaisons.
All of these folks are volunteers who are giving their time and energy, helping us get the right messages out there, and be accurate when they do so. We talk to them on conference calls monthly and emails weekly to keep them engaged. They’re a tremendous resource.
Do you offer these groups training?
One of the reasons I travel so much is we offer any of our chapters one to four hours of media training, including how to answer reporters’ questions, what to do on camera, and messages to include in opinion pieces and letters to the editor. We also discuss social media pitfalls because this is not their full-time job. We’ve had anywhere from 10 to 150 people attend a chapter media training.
With a bachelor's in political science and a master's in public administration, you weren't formally educated in communications, but your career has brought you into this field. How did that career evolution happen and how do you like it?
I’ve always worked for nonprofits, but the transition to communications happened gradually. At my last job they asked me to take on media outreach and government relations. And then I started doing more press releases. I learned a lot from some great colleagues and took courses offered by the PRSA.
Moving into AILA, I chose to go into the communications side pretty much exclusively. I’ve always liked reading and writing, and now that’s a big part of my job. It’s been a gradual progression, but it’s something I’m really happy about. I’ve always said I’d rather be busy than bored, and PR removed any chance of boring from the equation.
I feel like what I’m doing makes a difference. When I work with an AILA member or turn a complicated legal point into something anyone can understand, I see that as an important thing to do. Not everyone will go to law school, not everyone can be an immigration expert, but it’s great when we can take our members’ expertise and share that knowledge with people in a way that accessible.
Are there any challenges associated with communicating on behalf of lawyers, and how do you overcome them?
I think the challenge we run into is that most lawyers are trained to be accurate, which is great. They want to be very precise when they talk about a legal citation, describe a case or speak to a judge. But we’re in PR, and there is a time limit when a reporter calls and has a question. Being that detailed may not be possible or be the way you get an important message across to the public. You need to share an emotion or clear message instead of a statute. So I ask our members to focus on what they want to get across, rather than the detailed legal explanation that probably feels more comfortable to them. Getting them to feel comfortable using broad, accessible messaging is a challenge, but they’re really great at working with me.
You're originally from Oregon. What's one thing visitors to the state shouldn’t miss?
This is the toughest question! We have mountains and the ocean. We have high desert, a bunch of food, bookstores, and I hear there is yoga with goats up in Portland. I think it’s safe to say there is something for everyone in Oregon, no matter what you’re looking for!