Paul Holmes 22 Apr 2001 // 11:00PM GMT
The program is worthy of recognition because the campaign’s results greatly exceeded client expectations, completely transformed a stale seat belt debate in Virginia and created an overwhelming public call to action. Without question, the campaign’s efforts significantly increased awareness of the issue — saving lives on Virginian highways.
Challenge 1: Seat belt usage in the Commonwealth of Virginia had plateaued and in some instances, the usage rate had begun to drop.
Challenge 2: Virginia is home to a conservative, southern state legislature, supported by an even more conservative media. The legislature’s objections to a stricter seat belt law stemmed primarily from strident civil liberties arguments. In fact, the body has passed laws making it illegal to have your dog in the rear of a pickup truck but not your children, and it remains one of few remaining stalwarts in opposing open container laws.
Challenge 3: The majority of Virginia’s newspapers were vehemently opposed to the legislation in the past, labeling the bill as “government nannyism.”
Challenge 4: Years of traditional lobbying efforts had fallen short of achieving the clients stated objectives.
Late Term Challenges: Late in the effort, the campaign discovered that the Speaker of the House held a personal vendetta against the bill. In fact, he threatened to strip House Transportation Committee Members of their sought after committee seat if they supported the measure. Instead, the Speaker dictated that the legislation be reported to the House Police and Militia Committee, the most conservative committee in the General Assembly, where the bill would be certain to die.
PLANNING PROCESS AND OBJECTIVES
The overarching objectives from a public relations perspective were simple — reverse negative public and media opinions surrounding legislation that would upgrade Virginia’s seat belt law to primary enforcement.
With a scant few months to prepare, work focused on creating a coalition of parents, teachers, doctors, law enforcement, etc… that would aggressively support and advocate on behalf of the bill through the state’s media. Further emphasis was placed on identifying key editorial writers, reporters and legislators who were supportive of the effort during past attempts as well as those who had the potential to be converted.
Lobbying activities targeted the senators and delegates in need of conversion, and newspapers and television outlets in their respective districts were placed at the top of the priority list.
After numerous lackluster years, the campaign to upgrade seat belt laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia needed a breath of new life. The campaign’s first response was to shift the debate to children – emphasizing the fact that convincing adults to buckle up is the most effective way to keep children buckled up and alive.
And, although injuries and deaths in the state were at an all time high, legislators and media felt they could still easily dismiss the issue. To that end, the campaign was designed to put a human face on an issue — forcing legislators to look victims in the eye, while media faced a growing tide of public outcry in favor of the legislation.
Late Term Strategies: Through nothing more than bare-knuckled politics and political threats, the Speaker of the House was successful in sending the seat belt legislation to certain death in the legislature’s Police and Militia Committee. The late term strategies were focused on exposing the Speaker and his political horseplay surrounding the legislation.
A coalition of law enforcement officers, educators, parents and medical professionals served as spokespeople in the media and General Assembly. Family members of victims were recruited and media trained to capitalize on the emotional nature of the issue.
The now standard use of blast faxes, group emails, web casts and satellite feeds was intentionally abandoned in executing the campaign’s media strategy. The campaign returned to a seemingly antiquated tactic of meeting with reporters, editors and producers face-to-face. The effort put the “relations” back into public relations. Over the course of two months, over 3,500 back road, rural Virginia miles were covered. Meetings were held at the Commonwealth’s most conservative newspapers and overwhelming support of one of the General Assembly’s most liberal bills increased.
Reporters were urged to recognize the record number of deaths on Virginia’s highways. When statistics didn’t work, the mother of a crash victim, who had been identified through our coalition and media trained, returned to talk with reporters. When a victim did not prove to be influential enough, another advocate was recruited — a conservative former Superintendent of State Police.
The fostering of personal relationships with every target enabled each strategy to be specifically tailored to best combat the target’s personal oppositions to the bill.
After the issue had reached a fever pitch, a press conference was held on the grounds of the State House. Representatives from every major television station and newspaper in the state showed up for the press conference — each already thoroughly educated on the bill through our face-to-face meetings. The room was filled with hundreds of toys — each representing a child lost on Virginia’s highways during the year. The visual provided a compelling backdrop for both broadcast and photo journalists.
The media results were overwhelming. The client contact, who initiated similar campaigns in many other states, called Virginia’s effort “the most remarkable media turnaround” he has ever witnessed. The campaign gained not only numerous favorable articles from most every daily and community paper in the state, but also secured an extraordinary number of positive editorials — many from newspapers who had editorialized against the issue in the past. The state’s newspapers printed multiple articles and editorials focusing both on the merits of the bill and the politics surrounding the Speaker’s political actions (including numerous articles and editorials from The Washington Post). For a summary of coverage, please see attached clips.
Although gaining media support was the primary objective of the campaign, the effort yielded many additional results, including: the conversion of delegates’ positions on the bill (many of whom attributed their change of heart to the coalition’s activities); raised awareness of the importance of seat belt use; the establishment of the issue as a “hot topic” in upcoming state elections; significant progression of the legislation; and a favorable environment for passage in the subsequent legislative session.