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June 12, 2009

How PR Can Influence Public Policy: Pork Barrel Book Sparks Huge Visibility for Small Think Tank

By Frank Zeccola

During the 2008 presidential election, the sound bites "pork barrel spending" and "earmarks" played heavily in both campaigns, as well as in media analysis throughout. And these phrases certainly figured prominently in voters' minds as they stepped into the voting booth on election day.

Two groups partly responsible for the popularity and high media visibility of these concepts during that year are the Illinois Policy Institute and Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). These two nonpartisan think tanks joined forces in early 2008 with Chicago-based PR firm Mac Strategies Group to promote the "2008 Illinois Piglet Book."

The book highlights $686 million of what the groups consider wasteful or pork barrel spending by the Illinois government. A 2009 edition has since been released, but in 2008, a lot was on the line.

Half a million dollars on a Tanning Act?

The 2008 "Piglet" book pointed out questionable Illinois government spending, such as $500,000 to administer the Tanning Facility Permit Act, and $4 million for a Ford Technical Training Center in Chicago Heights.

The CAGW and the Illinois Policy Institute had put out "Piglet" books like this for several years—but had landed very little media coverage in the past. "They were fairly unknown in Chicago and Springfield media," says Mac Strategies president, Ryan McLaughlin—who came in to change all that.

Typically, a public policy group might issue a press release and hold a press conference to promote a piece of news like the pork barrel book. But McLaughlin and Mac Strategies had other ideas. "We came up with the idea for two press conferences," McLaughlin says. "One in Springfield and one in Chicago."

A tale of two press conferences

This was a novel and somewhat nerve-wracking idea for McLaughlin's client, the Illinois Policy Institute. "They said, 'We've never done that before.' But I explained that in large states, everyone doesn't live in the same area," McLaughlin explains. "There are people living in Springfield, where the government is, and in Chicago, where a large number of voters are."

It's necessary to reach voters in both areas with your message, McLaughlin stresses. He outlines another problem he's noticed with the media approach of many policy groups: "A lot of times, a group will hold a press conference downstate—and all they talk about is Chicago. But it's a question of penetrating both markets—you have to penetrate both markets if you want to affect public policy."

After some discussion and debate, the Illinois Policy Institute realized the value of what McLaughlin was proposing. "In the end, they agreed to hold dual press conferences."

Ramping up for two press conferences: Mac Strategies goes for the "ridiculous and absurd"

With an entire book full of pork barrel spending, McLaughlin advised the client to focus on the most egregious instances in press materials and at the press conferences. "We worked to identify the very worst projects, not just at the state level, but also the projects that affect citizens right where they live," he says.

"This is a state that spends a lot of money," he continues. "The key was talking not about the core government programs, but about the absurd things like tanning permits, and the million dollars they spending were on a film office. This isn't Hollywood!"

The lesson for PR: "The number-one factor was coming up with good, relevant info to pitch to the media," McLaughlin says. "This was something people wanted to talk about. The state had a huge deficit and big economic problems. We've lost a lot of jobs—and we were spending money on these ridiculous and absurd programs."

Let's get visual: Mac Strategies puts the piglet imagery front and center

Mac Strategies also began conceptualizing and producing a piglet book poster as a visual prop for the press conferences—and a lure for media to use in their television broadcasts. Throughout pre-pitching and press release follow-ups, they highlighted these visual angles as an eye-popping attention grabber. "We felt the pork book itself would make a great visual," McLaughlin says. And it worked: "All the photographers picked it up. We packaged it in a way that was appealing to the media."

From there, it was time to get down to PR basics and begin pitching the media: "We were very aggressive in contacting TV, radio and print," McLaughlin says. "This was a very sexy issue at the time, especially in Chicago, where pork and waste tend to happen on a large scale."

His advice: "If you have a good product that you believe in, you have to really sell it to the media. This was a very aggressive guerilla campaign. I knew I could sell it to the decision makers and that it would be a good hit."

Conference day arrives

"The conferences were held about an hour apart in Chicago and Springfield," McLaughlin says. "The benefit of that is that we caught the news cycle. After the first conference in Chicago, I was able to call the client in Springfield and say, 'Here's what worked. Here's what we can do better.' I was able to give them tips before the second conference started."

His tips for PR: "Be aggressive in the news cycle. If you get coverage on a conference in the morning, line up more coverage with talk radio and other media outlets that couldn't make it there in the morning."

The results: Statewide media attention—and national visibility for the think tanks as donations double over the next year.

With the piglet visuals as a backdrop, "We had the client come out and list all the pork" during the press conferences, McLaughlin says.

The dual press conferences landed the organizations a combined 15 television segments and 17 radio interviews and comprehensive print news coverage. For example, an editorial columnist for the Chicago Tribune dedicated an entire column to the event. And Institute spokespersons were routine guests on talk radio shows in the Chicago, Springfield and Peoria media markets.

As a result, the institute's credibility was elevated—branding them as an expert source within the public policy community and resulting in heightened awareness among lawmakers and peers.

"It was the highest level of media exposure they'd ever received," McLaughlin says. "It branded them as a credible economic voice. This allowed us to go back to the media for other campaigns. Now, we get reporters calling us up saying, 'When are you going to do another pork book?'"

In addition, donations to the organization more than doubled from 2007 to 2009—which can be directly attributed to the media exposure and third-party credibility secured by the campaign.

Secrets for success: Read on as McLaughlin offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Gold in Best Special Event/Stunt at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity:

1. Take a multiple press conference approach when reaching out to a large geographical audience. "If you're trying to penetrate public policy in a large state that has various media markets, don't be too shy to hold multiple press conferences at the same time," he recommends. "Many groups just focus on the one conference and then walk away. But in this case, we were able to double our media presence by holding more two conferences."

2. Keep messaging simple, focused—and eye popping. "When it comes to public policy, don't over complicate it," he suggests. "We had a very simple message in this campaign and pointed out only the most startling issues that would catch people's eyes." His advice: "Boil it down. Create pitches that talk about the most absurd issues. If you do that, reporters will say, 'That makes sense.' They'll be shocked—and that increases your chances for coverage."

3. Educate the client when engaging in out-of-the-box PR approaches. "If you really believe in a specific tactic or approach, stick to your guns," he says. For example: "The idea of dual press conferences was new for this particular client. I got some resistance from them about it in the beginning. But I pointed out exactly how it would maximize coverage from now—and they bought into it. At the end of the campaign, the people from CAGW said, 'This is how we're going to do it from now on.' Don't be afraid to push for something if you know it's going to work."

WINNER'S PROFILE: Mac Strategies Group is an award winning public relations, public affairs and crisis communications firm that directs issue advocacy campaigns and media tours. We represent corporations, trade associations, public policy and coalition organizations seeking to enhance their profile and impact public opinion. Our clients routinely appear on television, radio, in print and online publications all across the country.

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