Community Relations: NJ seniors unite to build support for housing complex

Clark Township, NJ, had long been a community for the residents, by the residents. People who lived and worked there all their lives often retired there, as well, resulting in a two-decade housing shortage, particularly for low-income senior citizens.

Clark Township, NJ, had long been a community for the residents, by the residents. People who lived and worked there all their lives often retired there, as well, resulting in a two-decade housing shortage, particularly for low-income senior citizens.

As the need became dire, town officials began working with Clark Developers to build a senior housing complex.

Clark Developers quickly staked out land for the project, a difficult task in the crowded town. Located adjacent to the site of a L'Oreal facility, the only thing that remained was to rezone the land, and the developers started the process. How- ever, during the finalization stages, L'Oreal got word of what was happening and immediately registered a formal protest with the Council of Affordable Housing (CAH), claiming the area was not suited for residential living. With township officials and residents on their side, the developers realized they were going to have to fight the corporate giant themselves, with the help of PR agency Spring, O'Brien.

"We decided it was going to be a David and Goliath story," says Marc Weinstein, SVP of Spring, O'Brien.

Strategy

With only two weeks to put together a program, the agency realized it needed to highlight the campaign's talking points succinctly. Focusing on the ferocity of L'Oreal's opposition to the much-needed housing complex, Spring, O'Brien wanted to make it widely known that L'Oreal was more concerned about profits than people. The firm hoped to draw a hailstorm of unfavorable publicity for the image-conscious company.

Spring, O'Brien drew up fact sheets pointing out the various ways in which L'Oreal had put corporate interests over community needs, such as the loss of tax revenue the township would face when the seniors would be forced to move to other locales. The team also pointed out the economic instability of the L'Oreal Corporation, which had recently shuttered a nearby facility, as compared to the economic stability of a housing development.

"Given their track record in regards to corporate downsizing, there was no guarantee that L'Oreal would be a long-term fixture in this community," says Weinstein.

Tactics

Spring, O'Brien didn't have time to beat around the bush. It took its fact sheets directly to the media, calling local TV stations and newspapers to alert them to the seniors' plight and to announce that area senior citizens would be holding a protest rally outside the L'Oreal facility on November 12.

"They were trying to deprive senior citizens of a place to live," says Bill Caruso of the Clark Senior Housing Corporation, which worked directly with the developers. "The seniors were [ready] to picket all of L'Oreal's buildings in the area."

Unfortunately, pouring rain halted the parade, but the developers quickly set up a tent in which to hold the 150 seniors who did show up to hear the mayor and other town officials talk. The message being broadcast was unanimous: Despite the objections of L'Oreal, Clark Township officials and residents stood firmly and enthusiastically behind the project.

Results

Various press outlets picked up coverage of the meeting, including the state's largest paper. The day after the event, L'Oreal's president was quoted in the Newark Star-Ledger saying, "If the township and the mayor determine this development is in their best interests, we [won't] fight the situation." L'Oreal with- drew its objection to the proposed housing complex, allowing Clark Developers and the Senior Housing Corp. to move forward in front of the CAH.

Future

Having reached its goal, Spring, O'Brien's services are not currently needed by the developers, but there's still a chance the firm will be brought in down the line.

PR team: Spring, O'Brien (Morristown, NJ) and Clark Developers (Short Hills, NJ)

Campaign: L'Oreal vs. Clark Township Senior Citizens - corporate interests threaten affordable senior-housing project

Time frame: October 28 to November 12, 2004

Budget: $5,000, excluding expenses

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