Management Tip: Communicating the idea of freedom

Written By: Robert Fanger, President and COO of Fanger PR
Published by: Atlas Economic Research Foundation
Date: April 15, 2008

A communications campaign is only effective if it connects with its intended audience. And for a think tank with a limited budget or timeframe, that connection is crucial. And when you have an opportunity to make policy history, the stakes are raised to an extreme level.

Case in point, the 2007 push for universal school vouchers in Utah.

Starting in Sept. 2006, while serving as the director of communications for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, I took on the task of developing a communications campaign in Utah to assist in the fight for the nation’s first universal school voucher program. School choice had been debated in Utah for many years and in 2005 the state passed a voucher program designed for students with special needs. But, everyone was looking at the 2007 legislative session as an opportunity to make history.

In years past, there had been several advertising campaigns run on the issue, but results were mixed at best. If we wanted to ensure success in 2007, we had to try something different – extend the boundaries of what we had done before.

The first step was to define our message. We had several in our arsenal – choice improves all schools, students do better, taxpayers save money – but what we were missing was information on just how well these messages connected with our intended audiences. So, in the fall of 2006, we embarked on a plan that although is very common in corporate America was not used much, if at all, by think tanks. We commissioned a poll of 1,200 voters in the state and asked many questions to help us define our message. The polling wasn’t designed to just see where the public stood on an issue, but it was designed to see how we could persuade them on an issue.

The creation of the poll came together rather easily. I looked at messages we used in the past, ones we were considering to use and messages our opponents were using against us. We wanted to see what was or could be resonating with our audience. The results were somewhat surprising when we discovered that the idea of freedom is what voters overwhelming responded to the most. We had always discussed the idea of educational freedom, but didn’t have proof that this was a major point of pressure in Utah.

In the poll, we asked the voters their level of agreeableness with a statement along the lines of “parents should be free to choose the education best suited for their child.” The question received support above 80 percent among all political demographics – Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and the rest. That was the eureka moment. We had found our hook. In addition, an open-ended question found a majority of participants citing freedom as a reason they would support school choice.

Interestingly, the poll also showed that the idea of school choice being unconstitutional, which is a common argument against school choice in every state it’s discussed, was only supported by about 15 percent of those taking the poll. This meant that we didn’t need to divert our limited resources debating this point – this red herring. It also provided insight into how we could use our opponent’s strength – their willingness to discuss constitutionality at every point – against them. If we chose, we could push them this direction, force them to spend their resources on this point while we slipped our tested messages through the back.

From our polling results, we began to develop our advertising campaign. We wanted to avoid the pitfalls of previous campaigns – ads that featured parents sitting around a dinner table or the playground discussing the finer points of education policy. Granted, for many of the think-tankers out there they would be enthralled, but parents, not so much.

Our approach was to flip common decisions – ice cream, car purchases and uniforms – and present them as if no choice was available. The results were humorous ads that cut through the clutter and emphasized that we all want more than just strawberry ice cream. By using these everyday occurrences, we were able to make the correlation to school choice in an easy to understand way.

In addition to our advertising, we worked this message into all our media interviews, op-eds and publications. But, it was our billboard campaign that earned us the most attention.

We had attempted to purchase advertising with the Utah Transit Authority and place billboards on a few of their buses. However, the UTA claimed our advertising was political, even though there was no mention of legislation and our attorneys assured us it wasn’t. The UTA came back and said that if we removed the words “freedom” and “choice,” leaving us with a generic thumbs-up for education ad, we could run it.

So what did we do? We went and hired a company that provided roving billboards, which drove around the capitol and the city during big public events. We had our three radio ads converted to billboard advertisements and had them in rotation throughout the city. Now, I know you are thinking that this isn’t anything earth shattering. But it’s what we did in the meantime that defined how you can use communications to your advantage even in the face of a setback.

We leaked the story to the press.

All of a sudden, we had the major dailies in Utah running stories about our thwarted advertising campaign and running large photos of our roving billboard outside the capitol. The public took notice, legislators took notice and even the governor took notice.

While this all sounds interesting and fun, the real success came when we measured our effectiveness. When we took our initial poll, we asked a general question regarding support for the issue of school choice in Utah. After our largest media buy in the state, our local partner on the ground Parents for Choice in Education, took their own poll and asked the same question. The results were astounding. Within a matter of 45 days, we saw public support go up by seven points. In addition, the Deseret Morning News, which had been polling on the issue of school choice for years, ran a poll that for the first time showed supporters for school choice outweighing those against it.

The legislation went on to pass the Senate and then pass the House by one vote. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed the bill making Utah the first state to enact a universal school choice program. Unfortunately, the feel-good story ends there. A referendum levied by the teachers unions in an off-election year and their campaign, which blurred many truths on the issue, led to the program’s repeal in Nov. 2007.

But the ultimate lesson here is how you can use public relations, communications, and polling to your advantage to better connect with your intended audiences.

Now, as president of Fanger Public Relations, polling is something that I advise all my clients to use for their campaigns whether its education, economic policy or renewable energy.

Polling can be done rather affordably, state polls generally run under $10,000, but if designed correctly the information you gain from it can save you tens of thousands as you become more efficient and effective in connecting with that sought-after audience.