Media Relations: TX city forms bond with voters to help pass propositions

Small local elections usually do not draw huge crowds to the polls - nor do voters get worked up about campaigns to improve the local jail and library.

Small local elections usually do not draw huge crowds to the polls - nor do voters get worked up about campaigns to improve the local jail and library.

San Antonio voters were apathetic - and distrustful. The past few years had been marked by scandal, as several City Council members had been indicted on corruption charges.

With only eight weeks before Election Day, representatives from the city and surrounding Bexar County brought in Bromley/MS&L to boost voter turnout and ultimately pass nine propositions to fund 113 local projects.

"This is a wonderful city, but it's a city that resists change and also a city of voters that have little trust in the government," says City Council member Bonnie Conner. "The challenge was to overcome the distrust and negative feelings."

Strategy

Short on time and money, the Bromley communications team set out to launch an "aggressive, pro bono, grassroots campaign," says Deborah Charnes Vallejo, managing director.

Contributions to the campaign - known as the People's Nine because the projects were encompassed by nine propositions - came in slowly, leaving heavy reliance on free media publicity.

The city and county also were challenged to create excitement where little existed - indeed, enough excitement to incite voters to head to the polls.

Education played a vital role in the People's Nine because many voters confused the means of funding the projects - general obligation bonds - with a tax hike. The campaign also needed an informational tone because of restrictions on how government officials might persuade people to vote for bonds.

"It was a harder story to tell in a lot of ways, just because of the details of so many of the propositions," says Anne Whittington, campaign coordinator for the People's Nine and a coordinator of many local elections. "Nine is a lot to put on a ballot."

Tactics

Charnes Vallejo noted that simplicity was key to the effort. Rather than focus on the specifics of each proposition, messages were pared down to concise statements, such as "road and bridge improvements."

They then chose spokespeople who would resonate with voters: a former teacher reached out to parents, a former police chief promoted the emergency operations center.

"We had great backdrops for our events," Charnes Vallejo says about the weekly press conferences. "All of them were staged at the locations that were going to benefit from the propositions."

The day before the election, for instance, the San Antonio mayor toured the overcrowded Animal Care Facility, one of the locations to be helped by the bonds, creating touching footage for reporters and TV crews.

The PR team also handled a two-week radio blitz, signage, and T-shirts.

Results

On Election Day, the campaign team saw a 72% rise in voter turnout over 2001, says Charnes Vallejo. More important, voters passed all nine propositions, many by large margins.

The positive media coverage "helped a lot," Whittington says. "I think we got enough press interest and descriptions of how a resident would be affected."

In total, the campaign team counted 56 print articles and 59 broadcast spots leading up to the election.

The People's Nine became a personal campaign for the San Antonio team, who saw it as an opportunity to get involved in their community, Charnes Vallejo points out.

"Within our agency, we had a really good turnout," she says. "It was almost like a rally."

Future

The Bromley team has continued to work on occasional projects for the city and county since the election, Charnes Vallejo notes. Because the work is pro bono, "we only take [campaigns] on if we feel confident we'll have the available time - and passion - to get the job done correctly," she says.

PR team: Bromley/MS&L (San Antonio), San Antonio and Bexar County, TX

Campaign: "People's Nine"

Time frame: September to November 2003

Budget: PR team worked pro bono; printing and radio costs totaled $14,100

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