CAMPAIGNS: CEA makes news in legislative push

PR Team: Consumer Electronics Association (Arlington, VA) and The Harbour Group (Washington, DC) Campaign: Promoting Computer Sales Tax Holiday Time Frame: Fall 2002 Budget: Under $25,000

PR Team: Consumer Electronics Association (Arlington, VA) and The Harbour Group (Washington, DC) Campaign: Promoting Computer Sales Tax Holiday Time Frame: Fall 2002 Budget: Under $25,000

More and more each year, state governments have been designating one week during the back-to-school season as a "tax-free" holiday. For that one week, parents can buy clothes, pens, notebooks, shoes, and a host of other necessities without the added expense of state taxes. The idea is to stimulate local economies by taking advantage of a season when parents are already prepared to buy. But the most expensive - and increasingly indispensable - item that kids returning to school need is a computer. Some states include computers in tax-free promotions; others don't. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) would like to see them all get on board. So it hired The Harbour Group, a Washington-based public affairs firm, to figure out how to make that happen. Strategy The key to getting legislators to warm to the idea, they decided, was to make the holidays in states that already supported them unqualified successes. If reluctant legislators saw a significant spike in computer sales in other states, along with legions of grateful constituents who otherwise would have put off the pricey purchases, they would naturally want to imitate that success. Hence, the team decided to concentrate on promoting those holidays. They would get the word out to the public, and then, when computer sales spiked, make sure state lawmakers heard the good news. "The intent was to generate clips and get attention for state-tax holidays that would demonstrate the consumer benefits as well as the public-policy benefits," explains Harbour Group manager Joe Snodgrass. Tactics The key was media. But before making a single pitch, the CEA commissioned a study. The data backed up the team's assumptions: 73% of respondents agreed that computers were a necessary item for a child in school, yet only about 30% considered them affordable. Even better, more than half said they would be likely to buy a computer during a sales-tax holiday - if only their state offered one. Armed with the data, a three-person team started pitching regional and national media in July, just a few weeks before the official start of the back-to-school season. A large contingent of Southeastern states - West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia - support tax-free-computer programs, so much of the pitching was concentrated there. In addition, because lawmakers fear these holidays will send their residents into other states to make large purchases, the team targeted border counties in neighboring states. As for which reporter to go after, nothing was left to chance. "When we went to The Wall Street Journal, we went for regional economic reporters," recalls Snodgrass. "At USA Today, we thought our survey results would do best in Snapshot. At the regional level, we targeted consumer reporters because State House reporters will not be interested in something unless there's a bill pending." Results USA Today put the survey results in its Snapshot section. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece, and a number of regional papers covered the issue. The campaign generated enough positive clips to make an easier task of lobbying reluctant legislators in the future. "We helped create good lobbying tools for the future," says Snodgrass. "This wasn't just a one-off campaign where you got your hits and it's over with." Future That lobbying will begin this winter, when most state legislatures reconvene. Snodgrass says he expects to wage a similar push the next time America's kids head back to school.

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