CAMPAIGNS: Public Affairs - Voters respond to fact-based PR

Client: Eller Media Co. (Minneapolis)

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.

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