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Communicating With the Public Is Key to Peterson Foundation


What do a foundation launch and Hollywood-style movie premiere have in common? For the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, quite a bit.

The foundation, which only officially opened for business in mid-July, has just released a major documentary about the perils of America’s growing debt, one of the issues at the core of its mission. At the same time, support for the documentary. I.O.U.S.A.– and all the effort it put into the film’s debut, including a nationally simulcast town meeting – show how the newly launched foundation intends to use all forms of media to engage the public in its work.

Started with a personal commitment of at least $1 billion from Peter G. Peterson, the senior chairman of The Blackstone Group, the foundation seeks to make the public aware of the need to act on several key challenges – from looming budget deficits, to out-of-control health care costs, to overdependence on foreign energy – that threaten America’s future.

I.O.U.S.A., which Reuters has said “may be to the U.S. economy what An Inconvenient Truth was to the environment,” premiered August 21, 2008 with a screening followed by a town meeting featuring Peterson, foundation CEO Dave Walker, AARP’s Bill Novelli, CATO’s William Niskanen, and mega-investor Warren Buffett. The event took place in Omaha and was broadcast by satellite to 400 movie theatres around the country. The nonpartisan documentary also will be screened at this summer’s Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. The film tells the story of America’s four key deficits – budget, savings, balance of payments/trade, and leadership – and their implications for the nation and its citizens.

In addition to supporting the documentary and the creation of a stand-alone website to promote it, the foundation intends to make substantial investments in other media, especially online forms. The foundation has both its own website and Facebook page.

According to Elizabeth Wilner, director of public affairs, the foundation’s website is already attracting substantial traffic and within one month of its rollout, “tens of thousands” of visitors had signed up to express their support and to be added to the mailing list.

The foundation’s commitment to using new communications tools comes with a strong endorsement of CEO Walker, a former U.S. Comptroller General. “We’re building a full online community – one that takes advantage of social networking, the power of the blogosphere, and whatever new technologies come along to foster debate and build a movement that will force elected officials to act.”

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