Message unity is a sound proposition

Communications campaigns surrounding state propositions and local ballot initiatives need to incorporate a variety of tactics if they hope to achieve the desired result.

Communications campaigns surrounding state propositions and local ballot initiatives need to incorporate a variety of tactics if they hope to achieve the desired result.

At first glance, the issue seemed to be a simple matter of convenience: Shoppers in Massachusetts buying groceries might naturally want the option of picking up a bottle of wine at the same time. At least that was the argument in favor of 2006's state ballot question 1.

Big supermarket chains in the state, like Stop & Shop and Shaw's, had wanted for years to change the rule to allow more wine licenses per owner. After failing to persuade the state legislature to do it, they gathered enough signatures to put the matter to a statewide vote.

For the state's 2,000 or so licensed liquor-store owners who have for decades been able to own no more than three stores each, the proposition was an existential threat.

As Joe Baerlein, CEO of Boston-based Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications (RBSC), recalls, the coalition fighting the state proposition, including the Massachusetts Wine and Spirits Wholesalers, the Massachusetts Beer Wholesalers, and the Massachusetts Packaged Stores Association, needed to find another message to counter the promise of convenience.

Hired to fight the initiative, RBSC found the answer in research conducted by Marttila Communications Group, which discovered through polling and focus groups that "public safety" could be a winner. As it turned out, the initiative to allow more licenses per owner for the sale of wine technically applied to convenience stores as well. Assuming such stores are generally staffed by younger kids subject to peer pressure, the argument was that teens might much more easily get their hands on alcohol, potentially leading to increased drunk driving.

"Marttila went out and early on did several focus groups trying to really understand what would move people off convenience," says Baerlein. "Our principle message... was to say we don't need to add the licenses because this would increase the threat of drunk driving, and right now [for that] we're one of the three safest states in the nation."

The surface appeal of the question is obvious: busy people might want to be able to pick up a bottle of wine in aisle six while getting something else in aisle five. But as Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the Massachusetts Packaged Stores Association, notes, the initiative as written opened the floodgates for any kind of store to sell wine - mini-marts, gas stations, 24-hour shops, and so on.

"We started raising the question of whether people really wanted that kind of access to alcohol and was it necessary in all these places," he adds. "It became a kind of psychological decision for the public: convenience over accessibility."

Sold on safety
Identifying women 35 to 50 as its core audience of voters most likely to be receptive to the message of public safety - men over 40 wanted their alcohol as close to their recliners as they could get it, Baerlein jokes - RBSC began an intensive campaign designed to center the public debate on safety rather than convenience.

As such, every component of the campaign incorporated that message, including grassroots outreach involving religious and law enforcement leaders across the state; advertising created early on by the firm Avenging Angels and later on by RBSC and Marttila; and direct mail, handled by the Mack Crounse Group. Earned media outreach to newspapers like The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and several dozen other papers in the state, as well as TV and radio outlets, was also key to the effort.

Though the majority of the newspaper editorial boards ultimately sided with the supermarket chains, Baerlein says his effort's success in shifting the discussion to public safety raised sufficient doubt in enough voters' minds, particularly given the number of law enforcement officials recruited to speak out against the campaign in media reports and in ads.

In the end, the question, which Marttila originally polled as favored by the public 76% to 22%, was defeated 56% to 44%.

"I don't think I was ever part of a campaign where we were so far behind to begin with," admits Marttila Communications Group founder John Marttila. "I still scratch my head about it. One of the key elements of any campaign is to attempt to control the dialogue, to set the terms by which the public debate takes place. We found that convenience was just not as powerful a message as public safety."

The right message
Originally created in the 19th century to counter the state legislative lobbying influence of railroad barons in California, state propositions today are in 23 states, and many also have city or other types of local ballot initiatives. Statewide propositions often trigger millions of dollars in spending on advertising and PR campaigns for or against a variety of issues. And like any kind of campaign, victory depends on finding the right message, as well as the right messenger.

As Pete Sepp, VP of communications for the National Taxpayers Union, notes, many propositions today have something to do with taxes, and the debate over whether or not to vote in favor of such referenda often boils down to the question of whether the money will be well spent. As with all communications campaigns related to voter initiatives, whether statewide or local, tax-related or otherwise, success hinges on messaging that
is basic and easy to understand.

Such was the case with a recent initiative in Wake County, NC, to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure development. Seeking to raise money to pay for a range of infrastructure, including new roads and schools, a coalition called the Partnership for North Carolina's Future worked with Raleigh-based Capstrat to execute a campaign to encourage legislators to give voters themselves the choice of whether to levy transfer or property taxes rather than allow legislators to decide the matter. The coalition included a group called Land for Tomorrow that consists of highway contractors, city and country government associations, and land preservation groups.

Left to their own devices, legislators influenced by the powerful real-estate lobby would more likely raise property taxes than transfer taxes, so a voter referendum on transfer taxes would be more likely to win passage, says Capstrat CEO Ken Eudy. In getting the word out to voters to pressure legislators to give them the vote, the effort hit upon the simple message of "Let voters decide" whether to raise property taxes or transfer taxes.

Kate Dixon, director of Land for Tomorrow, says Capstrat's orchestration of the diverse group of organizations backing the initiative was key to keeping everyone singing the same tune. So the disparate groups stuck to that same simple message of "Let voters decide," whether they were speaking to the public, the media, or directly to legislators.

The end result: success. The question will now be put on the ballot in a future election, making it more likely (or so the group hopes) to get money raised for all of Land for Tomorrow's objectives.

"We started out by doing focus groups and found that there was a great deal of concern about the impact of growth in the state, but no clear sense of what to do about it," Dixon says. "People may have talked about individual things - overcrowded schools, can't drive anywhere, open space disappearing, polluted water -but no one was talking about it in a collaborative way."

A simple message and a coalition of advocates able to keep to that message was at the heart of a campaign in 2006 to defeat a ban on gay marriage in Arizona, also known as Proposition 107, a measure that in similar forms was also up for vote in 27 other states.

In this case, says Joe Yuhas, director of public affairs for Phoenix-based Riester, the theme that his client, the Arizona Together coalition, hit upon with his firm's help was "Why take away?" In other words, why take away civil union rights for elderly seniors or young heterosexual couples?

Because the proposition could technically apply to all civil unions, Riester and Arizona Together realized that a campaign against the proposition could appeal to far more than just the GLBT community, and win support even from people potentially ambivalent about such issues.

Steve May, a former Republican state lawmaker in Arizona and the cofounder and treasurer of Arizona Together, says that from the start, his group intended to take a different approach than other campaigns working to defeat gay marriage bans. His group chose to hire just one PR firm and rely on the direction set by the firm and its research, rather than let its largest group of supporters, the GLBT community, set the agenda.

"At the ballot box itself, their opinion frankly didn't matter for me," May says, because their votes were a lock. "We had to move the people in the middle. What we learned from research was that [the proposition] could affect everybody. The strength in the campaign was that we were able to maintain message discipline. Whenever folks got off message, we shut them down."

From an initiative that at the start looked as if it would win by a landslide, Proposition 107 in the end lost by a slim margin. It even helped win broader sympathy for gay and lesbian rights throughout the state, even though Arizona Together's communications focused mainly on non-GLBT issues, says Riester's Yuhas.

Looking to the future
It's still too early to determine what the next batch of propositions will be for 2008, as special-interest groups and business entities are still in the midst of gathering signatures for petitions for propositions next year and seeking permission from state attorneys general to put them on ballots.

Looking ahead, Baerlein says that one interesting trend in propositions could be their increased use by businesses - as opposed to advocacy groups - to change laws that they have otherwise not been able to lobby successfully for within state legislatures. As a result, the level of spending on related communications campaigns is only likely to grow, though grassroots support will always remaining crucial to victory.

"It's usually been constituency or advocacy groups hoping to put questions on the ballot because they can't persuade enough state legislators of the worthiness of their initiative," Baerlein says. "Most of the time, I've seen business on the defense on these things. But I think [propositions] are an interesting tool for businesses to consider."

Winning Tactics

Do your research.
Rather than rely on gut instinct about what message to employ, public affairs pros say research they've done prior to launching communications campaigns supporting state ballot initiatives helped determine successful messages that they might not otherwise have formulated.

Keep messages simple.
"The problem with these state propositions is generating enthusiasm, so you have to keep it very simple," says David Johnson, CEO of Atlanta-based Strategic Visions, who has worked on various ballot initiatives in Georgia and other states. "You have to boil it down to what people can understand."

Keep grassroots coalitions in line.
As with any campaign, genuine enthusiasm among supporters is the most valuable kind of support, but willful volunteers with their own opinions on the right message for a campaign can undermine or contradict what should be the winning message.

Consider new and social media.
Along with traditional media outreach, online outreach can be a good tool. Bloggers, in particular, can be a great potential source of ongoing support for an issue. In addition, state proposition campaigns are in the future likely to begin devoting more attention to social media outlets like MySpace and Facebook, judging by the attention that 2008 presidential campaigns are devoting to such sites. "This is the first year on the presidential level that social networks are really being utilized," says Adfero Group MD Jeff Mascott. "I think we'll see that trickle down to ballot initiatives."

Remember the power of radio.
Radio can be a great outlet for reaching key voting groups such as Hispanic or African Americans, as well as generating extended debate among public affairs listeners, notes Richard Strauss, president of Strauss Radio Strategies. If a radio talk-show host can be won over to a cause, Strauss adds, that host may return again and again to an issue and provide a campaign with hours of free earned media.

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