Waging the Public Opinion Battle for Mosquito Control
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Holmes Report

Waging the Public Opinion Battle for Mosquito Control

As the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus spread westward in 2002, a ripple effect of media attention spread with the potentially deadly disease. Chicago, the hometown market of Clarke Mosquito Control and the region that represents a substantial portion of the company’s business, was soon to be the epicenter of the disease in 2002.

Paul Holmes

As the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus spread westward in 2002, a ripple effect of media attention spread with the potentially deadly disease. Chicago, the hometown market of Clarke Mosquito Control and the region that represents a substantial portion of the company’s business, was soon to be the epicenter of the disease in 2002.
Clarke assists communities working to suppress mosquito populations by providing with often controversial larvicide and adulticide products and mosquito control services. While business boomed with the threat of West Nile, the outbreak thrust mosquito control in the public spotlight, where environmentalists, thought-leaders and other high-profile influencers had the potential to turn the tide of public opinion (and thus, politicians) against necessary mosquito control efforts. Using a consistent and low-key approach to media and by establishing clear communication channels with partners and consumers, a potential crisis was turned into a positive situation.
 The company faced several  challenges. It needed to convince a cynical and chemical-wary community of the benefits of larviciding and adulticiding ; generate positive messages about mosquito control and highlight mosquito control as a welcome answer to a threatening problem; work with the inevitable return of West Nile Virus as the reason for communicating with media and the public about the role of mosquito control; and support Clarke customers (municipalities, golf courses, mosquito abatement districts) in their own public relations battles.
Having counseled Clarke for two previous years, JSH&A analyzed its successful media placements and identified the markets where mosquito control messages were less-effectively communicated and found three key learnings: Information from Clarke sources were perceived as biased by media; questionable information from the opposition was treated as fact and put up to counter Clarke’s science-based statements; and playing out a tit-for-tat rebuttal in the media only served to extend negative comments
As the majority of internal experts predicted that Chicago would see a resurgence of the West Nile Virus in 2002, we worked early in the off-season (winter/spring) to develop a campaign that would educate the media, provide strong third-party corroboration of our protocols and present the Clarke mosquito control products and services as the answer to the problem.
In January 2002, Clarke Mosquito Control hosted a West Nile Virus seminar on the latest topics on mosquito control for their Chicago customers. The PR team opened it up to media, allowing them access to experts from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other experts in the areas of avian research, biochemistry and mosquito control.
Early in the season, JSH&A provided each media outlet with 24/7 accessibility for interviews, statements and background information, which resulted in increased likelihood for balanced coverage. Even if they could not get someone live on camera, they were always given a statement or background facts for their stories, fostering a relationship of mutual trust.
  JSH&A arranged editorial board meetings with the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily Herald, offering early-season outreach to influence editorial support for mosquito control.
Clarke developed a consumer brochure, poster and mat release that were distributed nationally. Bylined articles in two key publications (American City and County and On Course) showed case studies of effective mosquito control.
Production and distribution of the Anvil Tech Bulletin – a comprehensive reference guide to chemical information for clients – was also distributed to media and customers, offering a great deal of background information and providing additional study information on environmental impact and effectiveness of the product.
A newsletter article designed to communicate general information for community newsletters and websites provided consistent information on mosquito control products and services.
An established set of key messages and Q&A for sales force, customer service and all Clarke employees helped further Clarke credibility by providing reliable messaging. All messaging was based on third-party recommendations from the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency to dispel any notion of bias.
Two spokespeople (one from Clarke, one from JSH&A) were identified and trained as the sole media liaisons. All media calls were forwarded to JSH&A for appropriate response and a media log was kept of hostile and balanced reporters. B-roll with consistent, positive images was also made available.
In addition, Clarke’s customers were given access to JSH&A services for their own media releases, counsel on handling complaints from residents and media inquiries.
When it became obvious that Chicago would be experiencing a strong outbreak of West Nile Virus, JSH&A drafted a letter for Clarke customers and a press release outlining that Chicago was now at a Level Three Outbreak according to the CDC. This third-party authority provided appropriate framework for coverage, and served to present the information as unbiased.
Clarke shared the stage and helped craft the messages for a press conference when the City of Chicago announced they were beginning a spraying program for the first time in a quarter-century.
When the City of Chicago began adulticiding (mosquito spraying), Clarke served as on-site spokespeople to manage on-site communications at the staging areas. For a period of two weeks, JSH&A was at the site as the on-camera spokespeople for Clarke and the City of Chicago, doing more than 75 interviews in 10 days.
Every television station, major newspaper, newspaper chain and news radio station in the Chicago area featured news coverage of Clarke, its products and services, and its customers. Whereas in previous years, coverage was “mixed” in terms of positive and negative, in 2002, the Chicago area coverage was overwhelmingly positive.
A consistent message minimized potential issues and third-party attribution of facts helped establish credibility for Clarke and its protocols. Clarke customers made excellent use of the JSH&A resource, with more than 22 communities tapping the counsel of the agency for local response strategy. An increase in local accounts for Clarke – including Chicago, which had not done adult mosquito control for more than 25 years – demonstrated a true bottom-line return on a communications investment.
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