Ep 65: The Art of Advocacy

with Robin Bronk

March 9, 2022


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Robin Bronk
Chief Executive Officer, The Creative Coalition

Robin Bronk has built her career on the solid reputation of developing local strategies and initiatives that resonate with global audiences. As a female executive, Robin expertly led The Creative Coalition’s transformation and growth from a focused nonprofit with a $200K annual operating budget to a national, nonpartisan, and nonprofit social welfare advocate galvanized around the national issue of funding for the arts. Today, the organization boasts $8M in annual sponsorships and champions grassroots campaigns rooted in the arts and entertainment industry.

Robin’s career stands on five pillars of success:

  • Board Leadership – Identifying, recruiting, and placing board members in positions that leverage their unique expertise.
  • Stakeholder Engagement & Mobilization – Employing community-focused “fireside chats” to attract, engage, and rally celebrity, government, corporate, and nonprofit stakeholders.
  • Organizational Development – Defining and establishing strategic direction to champion vision, mission, and programming that leads to exponential growth and expansion.
  • Policy & Legislative Advocacy – Compiling data into compelling legislative presentations and delivering testimony on Capitol Hill to inform and influence congressional decision makers.
  • Experiential Learning – Mentoring and promoting high-potential talent through challenging stretch opportunities.

This reputation for bringing global attention to the important social issues of our time, evolved over the course of Robin’s more than 35-year career in public relations, government relations, communications, marketing, and advocacy. When she joined The Creative Coalition, she elevated her leadership expertise to drive the organization’s advocacy programs and became The Creative Coalition’s first CEO. She built TCC’s first Board of Directors, Advisory Board, and Executive Committee, championing both strategy and governance necessary for continued growth and sustainability.

Robin’s role at The Creative Coalition grew as the organization expanded. In her role as the nonprofit’s first CEO, she continued to lead the Board, Advisory Board, and Executive Committee, while providing strategic direction for all aspects of operations and programming. As a result, The Creative Coalition reached beyond its NYC footprint to impact society at large.

Fueled by her profound passion for social welfare issues as well as the arts, Robin has spurred creative innovation around utilizing celebrity cause marketing, funding for the arts, and other first-of-a-kind solutions to champion critical social issues. Her success has been marked by prestigious awards, including: White House and Pentagon Commendations for a PSA campaign that addressed the military’s suicide epidemic; a Gracie Award for “Watch What You Watch” PSA campaign promoting positive body image among girls and boys; and an Artivist Award for leadership in the arts and activism.

Her high-impact career began as a Program Instructor and Speaker Coordinator for the Close Up Foundation, where she produced a weekly C-SPAN program. She worked as a Production Assistant with ABC News before joining APCO Worldwide as a Vice President. In this role consulting with corporations, government agencies, industry associations, and nonprofit organizations, she pioneered the field of celebrity cause marketing.

Robin holds a Bachelor of Arts from Penn State University and completed Northwestern University’s Kellogg Women’s Senior Leadership Program in Leadership and Business. Outside of The Creative Coalition, Robin currently serves on the boards of The Pioneering Collective and The Woodstock Film Festival. She is a Strategic Advisor with GLG Institute Advisors and a member of Pennsylvania State’s College of Communications Advancement Council serving on the Fundraising and Brain Trust Committees.


Every April, we go to Capitol Hill to ensure that the National Endowment of Arts is funded, because so many communities depend on it.



[00:00:18] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: So welcome to Her Story. And I’m absolutely thrilled today to have as our guest, Robin Bronk, who is the CEO of something called The Creative Coalition. So Robin, we’re just going to jump right in here and I want you to tell our audience, what is The Creative Coalition?

[00:00:37] Robin Bronk: I love jumping anywhere with you, Julie. I am your fan girl, your biggest fan girl. So The Creative Coalition is the nonprofit arm of the entertainment industry. It was established about 35 years ago. It was galvanized by the actors, Susan Surandon, Christopher Reeve, Ron Silver, and Alec Baldwin, and the heads of Showtime and HBO, because those were the only cables around then, to use the power of the entertainment industry, i.e. the power of the arts, to ensure that the arts flourish in American, and also for this nation to understand the efficacy of the arts, how the arts can change social welfare for the good.

[00:01:19] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, I think you joined, what, ’98 or more than a decade ago, let’s put it that way. And when you first started, I think this was a small organization that was mainly focused on kind of an advocacy for theNational Endowment for the Arts and some fundraising. It’s a long way from that storied beginning today. So as you came in as a leader, you took on an ever broadening agenda. What happened?

[00:01:47] Robin Bronk: Well, it was interesting. Back in the nineties, we weren’t as fluid as we were between New York and LA and DC. And right about the time I came in, people were, you know, I’m here in DC, I’m here in LA, I’m here in New York and what. It became this one big nation of artists and entertainers. And so we were established. Our headquarters are still in New York City and we have offices now in LA and in Washington, DC. But we still have the same mission, the same goal that was established by our founders, which is ensuring that the arts thrive and survive in this nation because arts are, for whatever reason, arts are considered sort of the dessert of our country. It’sthis frivolous thing. Is it a bunch of people leaping around the forest in tights, which is fine, but not a lot of people want to ensure that that thrives. So we started looking at issues around how the arts can make a difference. And we started 30 years ago with campaign finance reform. Now campaign finance reform doesn’t have a lot to do with the arts, but the artists can develop messaging to show people how it does affect them and how to distill messages so that the populace can understand. The story behind The Creative Coalition is, it happened because these actors, who also happen to be friends, they’d see each other at acting classe. And then they’d see each other at community rallies and Susan and Alec and Chris, and Ron Silver. At that point, President Reagan was going to zero out the National Endowment of the Arts and they said, hey, we gotta do something. So they literally went to Washington DC. They took the train from New York to Washington, DC, boned up on some facts, but also had their own stories of the arts, and went door to door in Congress getting votes to ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts was not zeroed out. Now, a lot of people don’t understand, I didn’t understand it before. The National Endowment for the Arts, we didn’t understand what does it do. And what it does is it gets an amount of federal funding that then gets dispersed to every school district, every community in the United States, and the communities and schools grow that money to ensure that there’s not only arts in the schools or arts in the community, but communities have been built on community centers, on museums, on establishments, playhouses where the arts add to the economy. And so that’s sort of the derivation of it.

[00:04:23] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You used the word, “stories” here, that, these famous actors pulled together a story, a compelling story. But that concept of storytelling is something that’s pretty much permeated everything that the Creative Coalition does. And it probably was the window through which I know you led a very strong effort to move towards social activism, to broadening the agenda from just being about arts, per se, to a much broader sort of brand of celebrity marketing around important causes that are not necessarily directly related to the arts, but definitely part of that directional movement in our society.

[00:05:06] Robin Bronk: It’s funny because, so still, the National Endowment of the Arts is still not really up to the funding levels that it should be. And we still, as you’re aware, still doing our stay on Capitol Hill, go door to door, same old grassroots lobbying, it hasn’t really advanced a whole lot. We are going door to door having conversations to ensure that there are votes that give money to the National Endowment of the Arts. At the same time, in regard to your question, it sort of goes back to what I said before. Well, arts for arts’ sake, while it is a beautiful concept, we who appreciate the arts know that this is tremendous, but it doesn’t really play in funding the arts. So we thought, well, how can we give the arts efficacy to our day-to-day issues, whether it’s in healthcare issues or in other social welfare issues. And so we started getting involved and, because we’re not only a non-profit, a 501c non-profit, but we’re also a constituency of actors, writers, producers, directors, executives who create content. So we have kind of the lock on the most creative messengers. So how do we use that use that art to move other social welfare issues through the pipeline in a positive direction? So we started getting involved in other issues to show how the arts can make a difference. And one of the first issues we got involved in was mental health and helping to de-stigmatize mental health. And at that point we have a. President of the organization, I’m the CEO, Joe Pantoliano, the great actor, Emmy award winning actor from The Sopranos, or Joey Pants, as many of us know him by, was, and this is an interesting story, he was in a movie where he was playing a character who had mental illness. And he started to see a lot of similarities with himself and things that he had through his childhood and things. And he was then diagnosed. And he became, he is quite an advocate for mental illness, but he also brought The Creative Coalition in and we met with leaders in the mental health arena and community to say, well, as artists, as people who have a platform, we’re in the living rooms of millions and millions of people every day. How do we help de-stigmatize this illness that affects so many in this nation, in this world? So if you watch TV, if you go to movies, you can see that going to a therapist, seeking help for mental illness, it’s all part of the zeitgeist of anything from a dramedy, to a comedy, to a procedural. And that’s okay. And we feel like we help to de-stigmatize it. And there’s still, we still are working on that. And we take on issues. We also recently have taken on the issue of de-stigmatizing obesity. How can creative arts help to de-stigmatize this disease that affects four out of ten Americans? And that’s almost half of the viewers of this content. So that’s why we also say, well, what does it have to do with the arts? Well, you make your living from a constituency where half have this disease. So we try and make that relevant. And we’re still coming up. Every April, we go to Capitol hill to ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts is funded because so many communities depend on it. And there are statistics. A dollar spent on the arts brings back $7 to a community. And those are pretty good odds.

[00:08:50] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, let me go back to that moment. But, on this topic of social activism, one of the things that I didn’t know that you had been involved in, or may be still involved with, is this whole image for girls, body image. And I forget what the name of the series was, but this idea that our whole society is involved in teaching people to be ashamed of their bodies. And particularly for young girls, this can have devastating consequences. So, I don’t know what prompted that particular area, but it certainly has been a powerful resource for helping girls see their beauty in different ways.

[00:09:33] Robin Bronk: One great thing, a lot of great things about the Creative Coalition, but there’s not a lot of red tape. We find an issue and we just get moving on it. And I believe I had been working with the Girl Scouts on something, or I knew the head of the Girl Scouts, and the Girl Scouts were taking on this girls and body image. And this probably was before it became the thing. They really were pioneers in that. And so they asked us to create a campaign because the media is so influential and so influential to girls that that addressed this. And the name of the campaign was “Don’t Believe Everything You See”, and we had some great and iconic women and young adult women in this series of public service announcements that talked about girls and body image. My background is grassroots and organizing. And so we partnered. The Girl Scouts then had the activations for it because just seeing a public service announcement, it’s great, but it imprints for a second. And you have to have some type of action to be credible.

[00:10:39] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You know, it occurs just in these three areas that we’ve talked about, the obesity, body image issue, and mental health, these are problems that are especially relevant to adolescents in our country and many countries.

[00:10:51] Robin Bronk: And it’s interesting because I kind of forgot, but we also spearheaded a campaign called Be a Star. And that was an anti-bullying campaign. And we did that with, interestingly enough, we did that with WWE, who is perceived as the biggest bullies in show business, but it’s entertainment. And we created the Be a Star Alliance. And at the end, I think it was in 5,000 schools and we still are doing it, but it’s sort of taken on a life of its own. We brought WWE Superstars to kids. They gathered at the schools and we did programs with them. We had a curriculum. We worked with teachers. We were the catalyst to bring together a number of community organizations to make anti-bullying a priority. And we also work with state legislatures to put in anti-bullying legislation, that this was a real thing. And so that’s what we do. We act as a catalyst. We’re not experts in the substance. We respect those who do .We know process and we know how to take a message and make it palatable.

[00:12:02] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Having worked with you on a few things, I know that you are more than process. You’re a fantastic leader. You’re an author. You have produced a movie and you are a very popular speaker appearing at universities and colleges, and in all kinds of venues. When you were a little girl growing up in the south, did you think you would be interacting with the stars and really becoming a star yourself? How did you go from your very beginning to where you are today?

[00:12:32] Robin Bronk: You know, Julie, that’s a great question that I haven’t really thought of, but I loved growing up in the south. I grew up in a small town in Clemson, South Carolina. My dad at the time was a university professor there. Growing up on a college campus is so much fun. As for kids, I mean, you get, it’s this carnival of grown-up things you get to do and be exposed to in the arts. And the arts, especially in these small towns, we had a community theater, or community the-a-ter. And that was where my love of Broadway, and the love of a musical, and the love of the arts. It was this great place where other people like me would be, that I had this, this thing. I mean, I kind of knew that Washington existed. I knew that there was a President. I didn’t know anything. I just, I knew I loved, something inside me when the arts spoke to me. And happily, we, in our high school, in our hagh school, we had a great drama teacher and choral teacher. And it sorta was like this, it sounds like it was an episode of Glee, but she brought in the football players. She was able to create this magical thing on the stage that football players and the geeks and the nerds and the goths, I mean, everyone just rallied around it. I just loved the arts. It was just my happy place. And my dad still pines that I’m not a scientist, but.

[00:14:09] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well in a way, you are a scientist,

[00:14:11] Robin Bronk: Well, no, he’s such a pure scientist that he doesn’t like that political science is called science. Growing up, all I wanted was an Easy-Bake Oven, but I got the human body, the plastic, the build the human body and paint organs. So maybe that was where the love of the arts came from.

And then I went to Penn State and loved it there. This is what’s interesting. Kids today have a plan. And I can honestly say I did not have a plan. I was living in the moment and graduation from college came and my best friend from sleep-away camp said, let’s go to DC. I have a boyfriend in DC, because she was graduated from Northwestern. So I went, okay, because I had no plan, landed in DC. She ended up breaking up with the boyfriend and I was in DC, so… I now love government. I love the workings of our government and democracy, and I’m fascinated by it. But when I graduated from college, that was, I mean, Penn State’s a great school. I was the anomaly that didn’t know how the government, how a bill became a law. But I went. I needed a job. And in Washington, the industry is government. So you have to understand it. And I literally went door to door in my little spectator pumps. I think they were also Naugahyde, not real leather because I couldn’t afford that, and with my fake leather briefcase, went door to door and I ended up getting a job, a really low-level job with a Senator. And my job was to open up all the mail because, back then, mail came, and to learn how to write the words “rest assured” when you’re writing back to constituents. So no matter what, rest assured, we’re on it. So I didn’t have a plan. And so I kind of wandered into this government and to policy and politics, and ended up loving it. And there’s great theatrics on Capitol Hill too. a It’s arts and letters. It’s every word that you say, that you write, that you, and I learned about that and, in time, became a lobbyist. But it’s all about the words and presentation.

[00:16:23] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Some of our audience are people who are aspiring to be in higher positions of leadership. And they’re looking for confidence. And they’re looking for, how do you go from where you are to where you want to be? So in your situation, you must have just had, I could use a different word, but I’ll say you had a lot of courage to be able to just reach out.

[00:16:46] Robin Bronk: Or ignorance. So I guess I’m trying to be, I’m trying to act like a leader here, so I’ll say it’s courage, but it’s the key is to not over plan and to be willing to take risks and know when you can take the risks. And again, as a young adult woman, I didn’t have kids. I didn’t have a mortgage. My biggest responsibility was a car payment. So that allowed me to take risks. People always say, oh, go for it, take the risk. But listen, it’s a lot easier to simplify your life if you have a lot of money. You have to know when to open that window. And I think that was one of the things. Somehow, I don’t know if it was, now looking back, it was, I wasn’t afraid to jump in somewhere where I didn’t exactly know what the ending would be. And honestly, I didn’t know what my goal was, but I knew it fascinated me. And I did know I had this luxury that I had no one else to answer to except myself. So I followed these fascinations and found myself, if that makes sense.

[00:17:55] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: That’s a wonderful, do what you love, in a sense. And I think that’s something that resonates with everyone. But you know, probably some people who are listening to us wonder why are we, in a series that has generally been focusing on women in various aspects of the health industry, why are we talking to The Creative Coalition? I think you’ve already heard some of that because the Creative Coalition is a force of health, and wellbeing, and mental health. And we don’t think of this as a health function, but actually, the arts and the advocacy certainly have health outcomes. But I want to make sure we have a chance to touch on something that’s vitally important to everyone in the health field right now. And that’s the whole issue of the pandemic that we’re currently experiencing and the work that you have led to really create confidence in the importance of vaccination by not just sending the usual message out about, you know, the vaccine works, we need to protect yourself, protect others. You have been able to orchestrate an incredibly culturally competent and very segmented strategy for` addressing these issues in ways that really matter to people in different communities. So tell us a little bit about It’s Your Shot.

[00:19:15] Robin Bronk: Well, thanks, Julie. I could never have said it as well as you did. We got a call in March or February of last year from Dr. Sten Vermund, who’s the head of the Yale School of Public Health, who said, “y’all are the best messengers, Creative Coalition. We need messaging for these vaccines. Would you work with us?” And I’m like “yeah, I think we will”. That took about 10 seconds to decide. It was such an honor to be called upon by the medical community to do this. We make sure that we learn, that we educate ourselves first, before we try to message something. And so we sat in on a lot of lectures and seminars, and in a very quick time, to understand what was going to be and what was with vaccines. And we, again, being The Creative Coalition, we’re great at collating people. We’re great at bringing in people who are experts when we’re not. We’re experts with words. We’re experts with messaging. So we knew that at that time, there were seven communities of hesitation at the beginning of the COVID vaccine. And we brought in behavioral scientists. We brought in the best writers, producers, directors to help us make this message. We brought on people like you, Julie, from the medical community who could give us guidance because we know how to be persuasive with words and with artistic assets, but we needed the behavioral scientists. We needed the medical community to tell us if we were on target. And we also then worked with community leaders in these seven areas of hesitation. And then when we produced these PSAs, we made sure that we were speaking to these seven communities of hesitation with substance, with messaging that made sense because it was a different message for rural America than it was for the Latinx community. And so we are continuing. Now we’re about to launch a campaign about boosters and about home testing. So it’s our duty as artists, as citizens of this world and as artists, to use, what is our value added? Our value added is distilling messaging to make an impact. And that’s our civic duty. And we have, as artists, and as people in the entertainment industry, we have a platform that no one else has. And so we have to use this super power for the common good.

[00:21:43] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: So where can people find these spots, because I really would encourage our audience to check out some of the, hopefully people have seen many of them, I have, but I know that you have a website. So can you tell folks where they can locate them?

[00:21:58] Robin Bronk: Absolutely. Just go to thecreativecoalition.org and you can, the spots are right there. And I just wanted to give a shout out to some of the actors who were on the public service announcements. It was everyone from Morgan Freeman to Alyssa Milano who shared their private stories. Alyssa was an early COVID victim. And she shared a very earnest story about where she was and why the vaccines are so important. And we, we get that, sometimes, celebrities, if you will, seem untouchable. What The Creative Coalition does is put them within reach and put what they can bring to the table within reach. It’s my constituency and the members of The Creative Coalition that allow me to do what I do.

[00:22:44] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: So I have to ask you because Tim Daly is your President, right? The President of the Coalition.

[00:22:48] Robin Bronk: He is my President.

[00:22:49] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: I had a chance to interact with him and, I’ll tell you, I get a little star struck. So how do you interact with these amazing people and kind of keep your balance and your own perspective?

[00:23:02] Robin Bronk: First of all, I have to say this. I understand what you mean about star struck because I am so star struck with you. I get like weird and giggly whenever I’m with you, Julie. Oh, it’s Julie Gerberding. So I get it. I know that feeling. What’s great about the talent, the celebrities who align with The Creative Coalition, who are our members are, they’re people first. They’re activists who happened to become actors. They’re parents. They’re people who are very active in their community. They’re driving their kids to soccer and they get why it’s important to be involved. Most of us have an issue and have a charity that we give to, we give our time or our money. Our members of The Creative Coalition happen to be actors. That’s their day job. But they care very much about serving the community. And it’s very interesting. Sometimes I’ll hear, oh, well, they’re just doing it for the publicity. First of all, they don’t get paid for any community work that they do, any issue work that they do. And publicy, remember, 50% of their fans will not like what they’re saying or doing. So it’s not great for their career, but they do it because they feel it. And as far as I just, I’m just the person who gets the people together. My joy is, I work with some of the most brilliant people. And I have a great respect for what they do, and that they’re giving this time to give back is always, I just am in awe of it.

[00:24:40] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: But Robin, I think for a lot of us, this whole world of, I’ll call, celebrity marketing, or activism, or PSA’s, whatever, it’s kind of a mystery. We all have an instinct that, if we could just get so-and-so to come and talk about cervical cancer or the importance of vaccination, that our problems would be solved. But I think what you have done is taken this to a higher level and actually helped us understand that this is more than a nice thing to do. This is actually a really important channel of influence and information. It’s a resource for information and awareness about various health issues that matter to quite a diverse array of communities. So you may not think that you are a health professional, but I am going to make you an honorary health professional.

[00:25:28] Robin Bronk: Oh, my gosh. Well, I have to tell my daughters because they don’t have a lot of respect for Dr. Mom.

[00:25:35] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, maybe you could play one on TV, but.

[00:25:38] Robin Bronk: That is great. But I just wanted to say one of the things that we’re doing is sort of institutionalizing this storyline and sound science. And this year we’re going to be launching something called the Entertainment Industry Institute for Storyline and Sound Science to bring the leadership of the arts and the most brilliant minds in the arts who are in tens of millions of living rooms every day to take these messages that serve the common good.

[00:26:08] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Well, thank you for your leadership and for sharing a little bit about how you got from the southern college campus to, you know, waltzing with the stars where you are today, but it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. And I do encourage everyone to check out The Creative Coalition and pay a little more attention when you see some of these amazing health messages come your way. And anytime you have a chance to amplify them through your networks, please do so. So Robin, thank you.

[00:26:35] Robin Bronk: And Julie, I’m making you an honorary star in Hollywood.

[00:26:40] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: We will broker that deal. Thank you so much.

[00:26:45] Robin Bronk: Thanks so much.

[00:26:46] Julie Gerberding, M.D.: And thanks to all of our viewers for joining us again for her leadership story. Thank you.

[00:26:52] Robin Bronk: Thank you.

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