How a public relations campaign sparked a national conversation about incarceration

BY JAMIE JENSON

July 12, 2018

Didier Morais '10 talks about his role in the #FreeMeekMill movement

A photo of rapper Fabolous with Didier Morais
Rapper Fabolous with Didier Morais '10

When Didier Morais ’10 graduated from Newhouse, he couldn’t have predicted that his bachelor’s degree in newspaper and online journalism would someday lead to him running a campaign to free a hip-hop star from prison, but it did.

In November 2017, a Philadelphia judge sentenced rapper Meek Mill to two to four years in state prison for violating his probation from a 2008 arrest on drug and gun charges.

Mill’s incarceration drew criticism from supporters, who felt the punishment was far too severe for the violations, which included charges for reckless endangerment and reckless driving. Objections from prominent people such as hip-hop artists Jay Z, T.I. and Rick Ross, and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, brought national attention to Mill’s circumstances.

Morais, a lifestyle director for Berk Communications, a public relations firm in New York City, says he will never forget the night when his boss, Ron Berkowitz, called to tell him about the campaign to free Mill from prison. 

Berk Communications works with Roc Nation, the label that manages Mill's music career. Morais, an avid hip-hop fan, says he was excited to be a part of a campaign. He soon realized, however, that he was part of something much larger than representing a hip-hop star.

“It’s been amazing to see how this has really blossomed into a national movement,” Morais says. “It’s gone beyond a prominent hip-hop artist to really making him the face of criminal justice reform and stimulating this national conversation.”

Morais and Berkowitz knew it was important to get the rapper’s story out to the public, so they developed a strategic approach that would do this quickly and effectively, which included turning to a group of people with whom Morais felt very comfortable—the media.

Morais and Berkowitz chose Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter Paul Solotaroff to tell Meek’s story because of his experience as an investigative reporter. They wanted someone who could do the research into Meek’s case and sit down with the rapper in order to tell his side of the story.

Morais says after Solotaroff's Rolling Stone piece was published, everything evolved organically. The Philadelphia Eagles, who had voiced support for Mill, won the Super Bowl in January, and used that attention to shine the spotlight back on the rapper. The rallies Morais and Berkowitz set up outside the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center brought attention to the issues of an unfair justice system, and included celebrities like comedian Kevin Hart and basketball player Julius Irving. Hundreds of Mill's fans came out to protest, chanting, reciting lyrics to Mill's music and using the hashtags #FreeMeek and #RallyForMeek on Twitter.

The #FreeMeekMill campaign worked.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the artist’s release from prison in April, and while he is still fighting for his freedom—he and his legal team are trying to get his original conviction overturned—Morais and Berkowitz are working with Mill to bring national attention to the problems with the criminal justice system.

“Part of what we’ve been working on for the last two months has been getting him out there to really speak about criminal justice reform and use his platform to give his voice to the voiceless,” Morais says.

Morais credits his ability to successfully evolve in the communications industry to his time at Newhouse. While at school, he was a reporter for The Daily Orange, interned with The Post-Standard and was an active member in the National Association of Hispanic Journalists on campus.

After graduation, Morais was a sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle; at 22, he was the youngest staff member at the paper. Later, Morais took a job as a beat reporter for the Boston Red Sox at the New England Sports Network, where he did some on-air work, delivering  standups and interviewing players in both English and Spanish. Five years ago, after realizing his dream as a sports reporter, Morais wanted to continue to challenge himself professionally and decided to explore his options in public relations. He left journalism and joined Text100, a marketing and advertising firm based in New York City, where he spent over three years working on campaigns for companies such as MTV and IBM Watson. When he joined the team at Berk, it was the perfect pairing. Morais’ experience in journalism allowed him to work with publications such as Sports Illustrated, CNN.com and Reuters.

Morais says Newhouse was the best four years of his life, and he will always feel deeply indebted to professors like Charlie Miller, who Morais says is responsible for his success as a sports reporter.

He also credits the school with equipping him with what he needed to be successful in both of his careers.

“The communications industry is all about how strong you can write and how strong of a relationship you can build and develop with people, and also how well you can articulate a point,” Morais says. “Ultimately, Newhouse really gave me the tools to succeed as a sports reporter but also to make the transition into public relations and to succeed in that second career as well.”

Jamie Jenson is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.