Client: Eller Media Co. (Minneapolis)
Client: Eller Media Co. (Minneapolis)
PR Team: Himle Horner Inc. (Minneapolis)
Campaign: Say No to Billboard Ban
Time Frame: September to November 1999
Budget: dollars 450,000
With annual revenues of dollars 800 million, Eller Media is probably the
country’s largest billboard company. Last year, though, the firm faced
an initiative that, if passed, could have its business in one city
riding off into the sunset like the Marlboro Man. An anti-billboard
group, Scenic Saint Paul, had gathered the 5,000 signatures necessary to
place an initiative on the November ballot to ban billboards outright in
St. Paul. Most of the political pundits and supporters of the ban
expected the billboard initiative to prevail.
Himle Horner, the agency Eller called on to formulate a campaign
strategy, had little time to do so. Eller had sued, arguing that the
matter should not be allowed on the ballot. But a federal judge ruled
that it could - just over three weeks before the November elections.
Eller argued that small businesses, such as those that could afford to
advertise more through billboards, as well as the property owners who
leased the billboard sites, also would be hard hit. So, too, would
nonprofits, for which billboards have become a critical medium.
Ultimately, the small-business and nonprofit issues became the
cornerstone of Himle Horner’s plan to win over Twin City voters.
The effort faced another challenge. Two other issues on the ballot would
raise taxes if passed. Himle Horner worried that voters would turn out
in droves to combat them and - already put in a bad mood - would vote no
on billboards without a thought.
’We felt they (the three initiatives combined) would create a pretty
impassioned voter turnout,’ explains agency principal John Himle. ’It
seemed pretty easy for people to say ’let’s ban billboards’ without
having the benefit of knowing fully what the consequences might be.’
While waiting for the court decision, Himle commissioned a poll of Saint
Paul voters that showed most supported the ban. As the activist group
saw it, billboards scarred the city’s residential landscape while adding
little value to communities. Countering that message, Himle sent
postcards in the weeks before the election to all Saint Paul voters
characterizing the ban as extreme. The postcards named local businesses
and nonprofits known to Saint Paul residents and questioned the wisdom
of taking away their principal source of advertising.
Media relations included sending background information to all key
outlets, participating in editorial board meetings and working with the
Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce and other third-party supporters to write
editorials and letters to the editor. Days before the election, the
Minneapolis Star Tribune and Saint Paul Pioneer Press printed editorials
urging voters to defeat the ban.
As the election got down to the wire, Himle had another phone survey
conducted. The majority of those interviewed indicated they didn’t
really care about billboards and that they might even provide some value
- obviously, the community outreach was working.
Right before the election, Himle used a phone bank to monitor voter
reaction to the anti-ban messages and to urge them to vote. Meanwhile,
Lee Ann Muller, Eller’s president and general manager, hit the talk show
circuit, emphasizing billboards’ importance to charities and to small
The effort paid off. In an unusually high voter turnout, Saint Paul
residents voted 53% to 47% against the ban. Post-election research
showed the campaign’s key messages and the information voters received
clearly influenced their decision. Himle and his client agree that one
of the most difficult aspects of the campaign was motivating people to
vote for something they cared little about. In retrospect, Muller says,
rather than react to the press when they called, she would seek ways to
create stories, such as those about small businesses and nonprofits.
The work may not be over yet. Some anti-billboard activists are talking
about bringing the matter to the state legislature. ’We are certainly
watching what might happen and we’ll be prepared in the event they try
to change anything,’ Himle says.