According to American Cancer Society (ACS) statistics, secondhand smoke is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the US and causes an estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year among nonsmokers.
In an effort to curb these startling figures and pass a comprehensive smoking ban in Chicago's workplaces, the ACS, Illinois Division, turned to Carolyn Grisko & Associates (CG&A) for assistance in media relations and message development.
Because previous attempts to pass similar ordinances in Chicago ended in failure, CG&A worked to put a new spin on the campaign.
"In the past, people tried to focus on overall health concerns, but research showed that this wasn't resonating," says Carolyn Grisko, CG&A president. "So we decided to focus on employee rights and looked at workers in these establishments who were being exposed to secondhand smoke."
CG&A's goal was to first secure public support and then use it to present the smoke-free ordinance to elected officials.
Margaret Farina, ACS director of government relations, says utilizing the ACS' thousands of volunteers was key in pressuring Chicago's elected officials.
"We needed them to realize they needed to listen to the public because we weren't going away," she says. "Every time they said no, we came back with more."
After its launch through a front-page Chicago Tribune story, the effort captivated instant interest, resulting in exposure on Chicago's major radio and TV stations.
CG&A then worked to keep the issue prominent in the news by securing segments on popular TV and radio talk shows, including Chicago Tonight. Scott Meis, CG&A project director, says the media targets varied throughout the effort, depending on which strategy was being implemented.
"We worked to engage the Tribune editorial board throughout the campaign," says Meis. "But we focused specifically on targeting the Chicago Sun-Times music editor when generating support from the music community by pushing for a story to demonstrate how secondhand smoke affects musicians."
Farina says the agency worked to secure both public and political support by creating commercials focusing on Mary Rondoni, a stage-four throat cancer victim who was not a smoker. Rondoni, who had worked in restaurants, bars, and taverns for 20 years, urged viewers to contact Chicago officials in support of the ban.
Despite being controversial among Chicago's restaurant owners, politicians, and citizens, the effort proved successful when the city council voted 46-1 to approve the comprehensive smoking ordinance. On January 14, smoking became prohibited in all enclosed workplaces, restaurants without bars, restaurant areas more than 15 feet from the bar counter, and within 15 feet of entrances to enclosed public places.
The campaign engaged all of Chicago's major broadcast and print media outlets, as well as local community newspapers and all minority media outlets.
Grisko says a major turning point came when the Tribune reversed its previous opinion and wrote in full support of the ban just before the vote.
Chicago will officially be smoke-free July 1, 2008, when the smoking ban for the city's bars, taverns, and restaurants with bars takes effect. Meis says CG&A is not currently working on any projects with the ACS, but the Smoke-Free Chicago campaign has proved to be an important catalyst in encouraging other Illinois municipalities to adopt their own smoke-free laws.
PR team: American Cancer Society, Illinois Division (Chicago) and Carolyn Grisko & Associates (Chicago)
Campaign: Smoke-Free Chicago
Duration: February 2005 to January 2006
Realizing that messaging played a key role in why previous efforts to pass a smoking ban in Chicago had failed, CG&A developed a focus not about stopping people from smoking, but about preventing workers from having to experience the unhealthy impacts of secondhand smoke.
By supporting that message persistently, the team kept the issue top-of-mind for both the public and politicians, and the effort achieved its core goal of getting the city council to pass the smoking ordinance.