Several years ago, government officials in Louisiana found themselves staring at a potential ecological disaster as part of the state's coast, a vast wetland area, was being lost back to water at the alarming rate of 25 to 35 miles each year.Without action, the state was not only looking at the loss of one of the country's national treasures, but also economic harm as local fisheries were threatened and the energy pipelines that ran through the area were exposed.
After realizing that the first thing that needed to be done was educating Louisiana residents about this potential crisis, the state governor's office brought in Marmillion & Co. to execute an awareness campaign that ultimately reached far beyond the state's borders.
Marmillion held focus groups and discovered that the plight of the Louisiana wetlands had the potential to resonate nationally and internationally. The firm and state officials then worked to turn the Louisiana wetland into an ecological brand that resonated in the same way as Florida's Everglades and the Amazon rainforest.
"One of the keys of our message was that not only was there a solution possible, but it would have worldwide implications in terms of reclaiming land," explains agency president and founder Val Marmillion.
The agency also made sure not to strike either a panicked or confrontational tone. "It is such a complex issue - with more than one cause of the problem - that we've been very careful not to place blame," says Sidney Coffee, public affairs director for the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities. "It's a lose-lose when you do that."
Toward that end, the agency worked with Coffee and other state officials to craft two central messages that were built into every meeting, press release, and media kit. "The first message we wanted to deliver was that these wetlands were of world ecological significance," Marmillion says. "The second was that this issue was also of strategic importance to the nation's economic and energy security."
Marmillion began the campaign early last year by piggybacking grassroots PR outreach to residents on a PSA campaign with the tagline "Don't Be a Big Loser." The goal was to intrigue residents enough that they'd go to websites and other sources to learn about the issue. "People in Louisiana had grown up around this and didn't realize how vulnerable these lands were," explains Marmillion. "So what we wanted to do was make people believe this was big problem [that] was really happening."
The campaign was augmented by a series of meetings held in-state and in Washington, DC. Government officials were invited to hear experts speak about the potential impact on the ecology, economy, recreation, and culture of the state and the US.
That national aspect of the campaign resulted in coverage in more than 21 states and Washington, DC, including print stories in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Seattle Times. TV and radio coverage included CNN, ABC News, and National Public Radio.
More important was the impact on a state level. Within nine months of the effort's launch, 84% of Louisiana residents were aware of the issue and three referenda authorizing the state to take action were passed by voters by 65% to 70% majorities.
Coffee says the campaign will continue with a series of PSAs featuring former Saturday Night Live character Mr. Bill, set to run through May. But, she adds, public education is just the first step in what will likely be a decades-long effort to save America's wetlands.
Coffee will try to keep Marmillion involved. "Marmillion is the reason this campaign has been as sustained and as meticulous as it has been," Coffee says. "It is my hope that they help us continue this effort for a long time."
PR team: State of Louisiana and Marmillion & Co.
Campaign: America's Wetland: Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana
Time frame: January 2003 to December 2005
Budget: $1 million annual base plus additional sponsorships