CAMPAIGNS: DOR uncovers PR's value in its drive to collect back taxes

PR Team: South Carolina Dept. of Revenue (Columbia, SC) and Chernoff/Silver (Columbia, SC), which merged with Newman, Saylor & Gregory during campaign to form CNSG Campaign: "Come Clean" Time Frame: October-December 2002 Budget: $200,000

PR Team: South Carolina Dept. of Revenue (Columbia, SC) and Chernoff/Silver (Columbia, SC), which merged with Newman, Saylor & Gregory during campaign to form CNSG Campaign: "Come Clean" Time Frame: October-December 2002 Budget: $200,000

Like other states, South Carolina dealt with a serious cash crunch last year. In one attempt to partially fill its coffers, the state legislature approved a tax-amnesty program in the waning days of its 2002 legislative session. "We hadn't had a tax amnesty in the state for 17 years," says Kevin Dietrich, who covered the program for The State newspaper in Columbia. "Our government was in trouble financially, so the chance to recover needed money was pretty significant." About 130,000 residents owed some $120 million in taxes delinquent as of December 31, 2001. Through the amnesty program, the state waived penalties, criminal prosecution, and half the interest on debts paid by December 2, 2002. Those who didn't pay back taxes by then were also assessed a 20% collection fee. Lawmakers didn't approve the measure until late June, giving the state's Department of Revenue (DOR) little time to devise a campaign before the October 15 launch date. Strategy Planning began at the DOR, where employees formed a 15-person tax-amnesty team, including public affairs officer Danny Brazell. The team identified the 24-to-54 age group as most likely to owe delinquent taxes, and developed the slogan "Come Clean." An RFP was issued quickly, and winning agency Chernoff/ Silver started by researching tax-amnesty campaigns from other states, and interviewing DOR staffers. The team concluded that the campaign should be entertaining, but without making light of taxpayers' misfortunes. Tactics The DOR began by developing a full-color brochure explaining the program. It featured a bar of soap and the "Come Clean" slogan. To save money, the DOR split the cost of a state-fair booth with another state agency, and handed out brochures and other promotional materials before the official launch date. Assigned broadcast duties, Chernoff created three TV ads depicting normally lucky people beset by misfortune when they missed the tax-amnesty deadline. The agency negotiated one-for-one ad buy/PSA placements. The leveraged buy was particularly important since the campaign competed with statewide elections for media attention, notes Clare Cannon, Chernoff AE. Most PSA placements came after the November elections. The staff set up an October 15 press conference announcing the campaign at the state capitol. Various officials, including DOR director Elizabeth Carpentier, spoke about tax amnesty. The timing of news releases, ad buys, and mailings to delinquent taxpayers was closely coordinated, Cannon says. Chernoff successfully placed op-eds in the state's major newspapers, and arranged 12 broadcast talk-show appearances by DOR officials. Meanwhile, Brazell, the campaign's primary spokesperson, spent a lot of time on the road. Results "We promised the legislature we could collect at least $5 million," Brazell says. "We hoped to collect $20 million. Far beyond our dreams, we collected $66 million after the smoke had cleared." Chernoff also exceeded RFP requirements, placing PSAs and op-eds in far more media outlets than its contract required. Georgia's The Savannah Morning News even picked up the story. Future The program has wrapped up, the agency relationship has ended, and South Carolina isn't likely to offer tax amnesty again in the near future. "We're still getting mail," Brazell says, although those who didn't pay arrears or negotiate payment agreements before the deadline are out of luck. "We're still finishing up the paperwork and tallying late money," he says.

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