Blandin Foundation Takes the Pulse of Rural Minnesota
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Blandin Foundation Takes the Pulse of Rural Minnesota

The cornerstone of the Blandin Foundation communications effort was the Rural Minnesota Pulse survey, which examines sensitive issues of racial tension and measurements such as economic development and safety.

Paul Holmes

Each year since 1997 the Blandin Foundation, in conjunction with Weber Shandwick, has created and implemented a communications plan with the desired outcomes (objectives) of 1) To gain credibility/recognition among target audiences; 2) To be properly identified (and have the proper image) to partner, to advocate and to gain new ideas; 3) To be positioned to help shape the agenda for rural Minnesota.  In election years, 1998 and 2000, the Blandin Foundation has capitalized upon the campaign fervor to focus public policy leaders on the issues of rural Minnesota. 
 
The cornerstone of the Blandin Foundation 2000 statewide communications effort was the Rural Minnesota Pulse survey, which examines sensitive issues of racial tension and core measurements such as economic development and safety.  The result combines Foundation standards of excellence in its programs with a successful communications strategy. 
 
The Blandin Foundation, a private foundation with more than $440 million in assets and a $22 million annual grant and program budget, operates from the banks of the upper Mississippi River, nestled among the pine trees in Grand Rapids, Minn., a town of 8,500.  For 60 years, the Foundation has closely followed the directives in the will of pioneering newspaperman, Charles K. Blandin, focusing on helping those in its hometown and surrounding communities.  However, in the early 1990s the Foundation expanded its mission statewide to “strengthen all rural Minnesota communities,” in addition to those close to Grand Rapids.  Today, the Foundation works to help create viable rural communities throughout Minnesota by providing leadership training programs, community-focused programs and convening programs to provide forums for discussion and action on issues by state and community leaders.
 
RESEARCH
 
The research component of this program was two-fold: 

1)     a critical assessment and review of the 1998 Rural Minnesota Pulse to determine past successes and areas for improvement;

2)     a scientific poll of issues of importance to rural Minnesota residents – defined as those living in communities with populations of 35,000 or less.
 
1) 1998 Assessment.  In reviewing 1998 election program, the Foundation, working with Weber Shandwick, identified the need to expand non-white participation in the survey, especially when querying the population on racial tension.
 
2) 2000 Rural Minnesota Pulse survey tool.  In 2000, the Foundation changed survey firms and hired SWR Worldwide, a Weber Shandwick affiliate with decades of experience in national and local political polling.  SWR conducted a telephone survey from July 19-23, 2000 of 1,000 registered voters who live in rural Minnesota, with a concentrated effort to reach more nonwhite residents (which resulted in a 7% nonwhite response).  The SWR survey questionnaire (see sample) provided a consistent measurement tool for repeated biennial testing and probed 10 community measurements.
 
Among the key research findings the Rural Minnesota Pulse found that:

  • 59.8% of those surveyed believe their community is doing a “not so good” or “poor” job in attracting high quality jobs.
  • Of great concern to rural Minnesotans is the lack of involvement for “adolescents or teens” in the area.  Forty percent of respondents said that their community was doing a  “not so good” or “poor” job responding to their children’s needs.
  • More than eight-in-10 (85.4%) of respondents gave their community a rating of “excellent” or “good” for providing quality K-12 education.
  • More than four-in-10 (43.6%) rural Minnesotans say their community has become “more diverse.”  This is an increase of 16% from 1998 when only 27.6% of respondents said their community had become “more diverse.”
 
PLANNING
 
Through close consultation with the Foundation, Weber Shandwick identified three objectives for the Rural Minnesota Pulse: 

1)     Bring rural issues to the attention of candidates for all legislative, statewide and Congressional races;

2)     Focus media on the needs of rural Minnesotans to bring third party credibility to the Blandin Foundation efforts;

3)     position the Blandin Foundation as a leader in advocacy for rural Minnesota.
 
With objectives in place and budget set at $24,000 for project management and media relations, Weber Shandwick devised a detailed action plan (see copy).  Among our challenges was the required quick turnaround on the survey and media relations to fit the desired news hole – before the State Fair, which dominates media attention and before the September 12 primary, so candidates can incorporate rural issues in their final campaign efforts.  
 
EXECUTION
 
To maintain and elevate the exposure of the Rural Minnesota Pulse, Weber Shandwick conducted core media relations strategies and tactics including creation of a detailed media kit with news release, survey highlights, survey questionnaire and Foundation fact sheet. 
 
In addition, Weber Shandwick worked with the Foundation to create a Rural Minnesota Pulse summary.  Formatted as a simple brochure, the summary was designed to quickly capture the Pulse findings for candidates and other public policy leaders. 
Core strategies were broadened to include a Minnesota State Capitol Press Room “walk-through” with the Foundations spokesperson – which resulted in front page and extensive coverage in rural daily newspapers; color bar charts with key Pulse findings, which were used in many daily newspapers; probing media training sessions – which drew out specific examples of Minnesota communities working to solve problems identified in the survey – including teen & senior swing dances; and utilization of the Foundations Web pages, which Weber Shandwick redesigned in 1999 and saw a spike of approximately 300% during the Pulse announcement.
 
EVALUATION
 
The Blandin Foundation, working with Weber Shandwick, achieved and exceeded its objectives with Rural Minnesota Pulse:
 
Bring rural issues to the attention of candidates – Not only did the Rural Minnesota Pulse receive more than 1.2 million impressions in statewide media (see report), but the results were also mailed to more than 4,000 Minnesotans, including all candidates for Minnesota’s 201 legislative seats and the complete Minnesota Congressional delegation.  In all materials, the Foundation’s Web site was referenced, resulting in an average of 19,500 visits for the three week period after the survey release, compared to a normal 2,150 per week rate, representing a 300% increase (see report).
 
Focus media on the needs of rural Minnesotans – Every Minnesota daily newspaper ran an article about the results of the Pulse survey.  And not only did the Pulse result in more than 75 news stories in print, radio and television, but the Foundation’s key messages were conveyed on media most important to its audience, including News Night Minnesota, a public television public affairs show; editorial board writers with the Rochester Post Bulletin, Owatonna People’s Press and Austin Daily Herald; and AP and syndicated articles by John Sundvor, a direct result of the Capitol walk-through.
 
Position the Blandin Foundation as a leader – Through such visibility efforts as the Rural Minnesota Pulse, the Foundation and its executives continue to be involved in high-level public policy initiatives.  In mid-September, just weeks after the Pulse results were released, Blandin Foundation President Paul Olson was appointed to the Summit on Minnesota’s Economy blue ribbon panel to articulate the necessary next steps to creating a state economy for the future – matching the #1 rural Minnesotans’ concern – high quality jobs (see release). Furthermore, to help ensure that rural issues are interjected into the campaigns, the Foundation has co-sponsored statewide debates, organized by the League of Women Voters.  As a part of the debate sponsorship, the League agreed to conduct at least one debate in Rural Minnesota, focused on rural issues.

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