Countering the Fire Ant Threat
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Countering the Fire Ant Threat

They may be tiny, but the newly arrived Red Imported Fire Ants and their mounds pose a mountainous threat to California¡¦s people and economy.

Paul Holmes

They may be tiny, but the newly arrived Red Imported Fire Ants and their mounds pose a mountainous threat to California¡¦s people and economy. Realizing that raising Californians¡¦ awareness of the enormous damage that the tiny ants can pose to the Golden State would prove to be no small task, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) turned to the colony of Fleishman-Hillard, which developed a very targeted and strategic education program that helped tackle California¡¦s Red Imported Fire Ants invasion head on. Guided by a grassroots effort that truly understood the needs of its audience, the program resulted in a more than 400 percent increase in calls to the state¡¦s toll-free Red Imported Fire Ant  hotline.  There¡¦s no doubt about it, Fleishman-Hillard created a program that produced a mountain of results out of an ant hill.


First discovered in 1998 in Orange County, Calif., Red Imported Fire Ants now infest 11 counties in Southern and Central California. The aggressive insects swarm onto people and animals that disturb their nests, inflicting painful stings that, in rare cases, can be life threatening.

Currently, fire ants infest nearly all of the Southeastern United States and are spreading westward.  Severely infested states, such as Texas, have been impacted both financially and environmentally by the ants. California did not want to suffer the same fate.  It mobilized efforts to eradicate fire ants in California before the problem became insurmountable ¡V something no other infested state had accomplished to date.
Although eradication efforts had been in place since 1998, Red Imported Fire Ants continued to spread. 

CDFA, the state agency responsible for eradicating the ants, believed that eradication was possible if citizens were made aware of the problem and encouraged to report any suspected infestations.  They enlisted the help of Fleishman-Hillard to create and implement a broad-based public education program to inform the infested communities of dangers Red Imported Fire Ants pose and the importance of reporting suspected infestations.


Research was integral throughout the program¡¦s development, helping the team to:
Identify potential program challenges by educating the team about the dangers associated with the ants and what had been done in other states to combat the problem 
Benchmark awareness of Red Imported Fire Ants among residents in the infested areas to determine the level of awareness prior to implementing the program plan 
Determine message appropriateness and shape the design of the program through focus group testing to determine what resonated with target audiences
Measure each tactic¡¦s success through wrap-up reports that provided CDFA with a sense of the program¡¦s progress 
Substantiate the overall program¡¦s success by conducting a post-program survey and call analysis


The overall program goals were simple:
Raise awareness of the problems associated with Red Imported Fire Ants
Increase the number of calls to a multilingual toll-free number, thus increasing treatment of fire ant infestations.

Initial research indicated that while fire ant awareness was high, most people knew little of the health risks involved, what the pest or their nests looked like, or what to do if a suspected fire ant nest was found.  

The program team, which included CDFA scientists, the client contact, and the Fleishman-Hillard team, realized that for the program to be successful, it must focusencountering the ants in their daily lives.  It must reach beyond advertising to include a total grassroots effort that reaches specific audiences who live in or visit the ant-invested areas.  

Specific audiences included:
„hOwners of new homes and new owners of existing homes
„hOutdoor workers, such as groundskeepers and lawn maintenance workers and agricultural workers
„hParents of young children and school-aged children
„hElected officials and health officials

Four strategies guided the program¡¦s tactical development:
Develop an overall theme of ¡§Report Red Imported Fire Ants toll-free at 1-888-4FIREANT¡¨ to brand the public awareness program
Secure a celebrity spokesperson to communicate key messages that personalized an otherwise uninspiring state-agency edict, making the message more memorable and believable
Provide sustained, concise messages to reach targeted audiences
Partner with key organizations to lend support and credibility to the program


Because of the real health threat involved, swift program implementation was a must. Initially, the target region was five Southern California counties (Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego); however, in spring 2001, CDFA expanded the program to include Fresno County.

Public relations tactics were designed to provide sustained information over time to diverse audiences, highlighting the toll-free number. Focus groups strongly recommended a direct approach with easy-to-understand instructions. With that in mind, the ¡§traffic sign¡¨ creative was developed to brand the program using a simple and serious message that would inform but not cause panic. A memorable toll-free hotline number, 1-888-4FIREANT, was obtained.  Research also indicated that there were differences in how various ethnic populations received news information, underscoring the need use radio in outreach efforts to ethnic populations.  It also indicated a higher percentage of Spanish speakers worked outdoors and that a multilingual approach was necessary to reach these targeted audiences.  Multilingual materials were then developed, including brochures, fact sheets, posters, B-roll, static stickers, magnets, rulers and water bottles.

Tactics included:

Lighting the Fire: Kick-off News Conferences
Held in September 2000 at a once heavily infested Orange County park, the event offered the media live ant colonies, sting victims, researchers, PSAs, B-roll and interview opportunities with representatives from local fire ant control agencies, CDFA, and the Legislature. Celebrity spokesperson Paul James, a popular TV gardener and personality, hosted the event that generated nearly an hour of airtime and reached more than 20.3 million people.

A similar, yet smaller-scale event was held in Fresno the following spring, which also was well attended. Coverage of RIFA dominated the news, appearing virtually on every media outlet in the region, despite the fact that the event coincided with President Bush¡¦s first-ever visit to Fresno and his first visit to California since his election.

Red Hot:  Award-Winning Public Service Announcements
Produced in both English and Spanish in a variety of lengths, the PSAs aired in Fall 2000 and Spring/Summer 2001 and featured celebrity spokespersons Paul James, HGTV¡¦s host of ¡§Gardening by the Yard,¡¨ and Lalo Guerrero, a legendary Hispanic singer/songwriter.  The focus of the PSAs was to create a simple, straightforward message with high visual impact that delivered essential information from a trusted source. Fall efforts resulted in air time on 14 TV/Cable stations and 54 radio stations in Southern California; Fresno efforts netted 23 TV/Cable and 27 radio stations airing the PSAs.  The PSAs receive local PRSA and IABC awards and well as an award from the State Information Officers.

Colonizing Effort: Grassroots Outreach
Research indicated that garnering neighborhood support had been effective in other states, so two pilot Neighborhood Watch Out! meetings were held in Southern California.  Other efforts included partnerships with regional utility companies that ran bill messages reaching more than 11 million residents; community outreach ¡§how-to¡¨ binders for county officials; and recommendations for county fairs where fire ant information should be distributed. Letters and information were also sent to county and state parks.

World Wide Information Trail: Web Site Redesign
The redesign included a fresh look, new content for easy navigation and a new address: In addition, the site provided media with digital images, audio clips of the PSAs, an online computer game for kids, links to county fire ant partners and specific information about the biology of the Red Imported Fire Ant.

Unearthing Support: Deskside Briefings
A priority for the leadership at CDFA, this effort was key to keeping legislators apprised of fire ant activity in their districts. Efforts included sending information to key stakeholders, ethnic chambers of commerce, and health officials, as well as school nurses, day care providers, local YMCA chapters and other youth organizations.

Professionals on Patrol: Outdoor Worker Outreach
Efforts to reach outdoor workers included bilingual posters for lawnmower shops; direct mail; partnerships with gardener and agricultural associations; e-letters to utility employees; Hispanic media tours with Lalo Guerrero; safety kits for agricultural workers and point-of purchase displays featuring Paul James, which were placed in Lowe¡¦s Home Improvement store locations.

Antsy to Learn: School-Based Program/Online Game
Developed in conjunction with ¡§Ag in the Classroom,¡¨ the state¡¦s specialists in agricultural education, the program provided 5,000 schools (with the potential to reach 60,000 students and their parents) lesson plans, educational activities and an online computer game as a fun and informative way to make children aware of the dangers of RIFA and how to report infestations. Letters were included that explained the educational program and how parents can help protect their children by reporting suspected Red Imported Fire Ants.

Making a Mountain of Media Coverage Out of an Ant Hill: Media Relations
Projects included outreach to weathercasters, which provided special on-air graphics to make viewers aware of ¡§Red Imported Fire Ant High Activity¡¨ days.  In addition, a media tour was conducted with Paul James that included a segment on KCBS¡¦s highly rated ¡§Woman 2 Woman¡¨ show. Agricultural trade publications and programming geared to the farming community were targeted for specific agricultural messages.

Paid ¡§Ant¡¨vertising
Ads were purchased in select areas and included billboard advertising in Los Angeles County; movie theater advertising in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties; and billboard and radio advertising in Fresno County.  Print ads were also placed in key agricultural trade publications in early spring warning farmers about importing Red Imported Fire Ants via beehives. The advertising, like all the program tactics, promoted the toll-free number as the best way to combat Red Imported Fire Ants.


Comparing the results of the post-survey of residents to the baseline survey, along with interim progress measures, and Hotline Call Center data not only measured, but underscored, the overall success of the program. Because hotline calls almost always resulted in fire ant control activities by local agencies, the state found the data essential in assessing individual program tactics, using it to help determine which counties needed more or less outreach activity.

„hFollowing the news conference and the airing of the PSAs, call volumes to the hotline spiked more than 320 percent.   One week after the launch, the hotline received 1868 calls, compared to an average of approximately 300 calls a week received prior to the event.

„hThroughout the 15-month campaign, there was an average of 432.5 percent more calls to the new hotline than before the start of any outreach effort. 

„hOverall awareness of RIFA increased by 11 percent in Southern California and a remarkable 46 percent in Fresno County. 

„hAwareness of health issues associated with fire ant stings more than doubled, growing from 24.4 percent to 61.4 percent in Southern California.  In Fresno County, awareness grew six fold, from 12 to 76.4 percent.

View Style:

Load 3 More
comments powered by Disqus