CAMPAIGNS: NM conservation district salvaged at the last minute

PR Team: Rick Johnson & Company PR (Albuquerque, NM) and the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District (Albuquerque, NM) Campaign: Retain the Ciudad Soil & Water Conservation District Time Frame: 60 days (June 2002 - September 2002) Budget: $12,500

PR Team: Rick Johnson & Company PR (Albuquerque, NM) and the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District (Albuquerque, NM) Campaign: Retain the Ciudad Soil & Water Conservation District Time Frame: 60 days (June 2002 - September 2002) Budget: $12,500

The Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District is one of 47 such areas in New Mexico - funded by tax dollars and grants - that works to conserve water and soil in the dry, mountainous area just south of the Rocky Mountains. With just one paid employee, it is primarily manned by volunteers, who most recently worked to save a section of the Rio Grande from salt cedar trees that each suck out 200 gallons of water per day. In June, the low-profile organization asked voters for a property-tax increase at a mill levy, and was soundly defeated by an anti-tax movement in the local media - despite the fact that the environment-friendly tax would be raised only three dollars per $100,000 of property. "Ciudad got slammed by the media," says Amy Miller, director of Rick Johnson & Company PR (RJCPR). "[The media was] using words like 'stealth tax increase,' when, interestingly enough, the district had tried to get the media's attention before the mill levy. Once it took on a controversial nature, it got huge." In addition to the defeat at the mill levy, an opponent of the tax increase found an old state law that allowed a referendum for dissolution of the conservation district with a petition of 25 signatures. The opponent easily got them, and called for a referendum in 60 days. Strategy With the existence of the Ciudad Conservation District at stake, the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts (NMACD), of which Ciudad is a member, hired RJCPR to educate the public about who and what the soil and water conservation district is, and repair its damaged image. The team at RJCPR knew that Ciudad was again poised to receive attention from the media, and quickly developed a strategy to position Ciudad as a quiet, behind-the-scenes organization supported by volunteers, working to preserve New Mexico's natural resources with limited funding. Ciudad not only sought to regain a positive image, but educate the public about the district's programs and, most importantly, prevent the dissolving of the conservation district. Tactics After their appointment, the team at RJCPR, headed by Miller, put all members of the NMACD through a media-training seminar the very next day to prepare them for a fast and furious media campaign. Many members put their full-time jobs on hold to make presentations and plead their case to more than 40 organizations and political leaders in 60 days, sometimes making four appearances in one day. "We ran [the volunteers] ragged," says Miller. They created a media kit addressing the popular question, "What is a soil and water district, and how does it work for me?" The kit contained background and project information, story ideas, and news releases announcing polling locations and absentee-voting procedures. They held editorial-board meetings with the press in the Albuquerque and Rio Rancho areas, and drafted newsletter articles and a brochure. Along with news media, RJCPR tackled popular media too. "We have a very popular radio station here with a very controversial talk show." Miller says. "They had slammed the mill levy, but we asked to be on the show. We decided to take the nasty calls, but one of our strategies was to get the supporters to block the phone line, and they did. The host was convinced." RJCPR targeted grassroots and environmental groups to gain more support. A conference with politicians was also planned to demonstrate that it wasn't a partisan issue. Finally, the team held a press conference before the polls opened. Results Forty key community groups and the majority of the news media endorsed the campaign. "Really, until the night of the vote, we had no idea one way or the other who'd win." Miller says. "Everyone said we didn't have a chance." But when the votes were counted, Ciudad won by a two-to-one margin. Future Miller says the next step is to go to the NMACD statewide convention to provide media and crisis-communications training. "We'll teach them how to avoid this happening again, and how to build communication with the media and public over time."

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