In the fast-paced world of public relations, we are accustomed to taking quick action, responding in a timely manner and moving on to the next project. However, real change often takes time, and it can be in those long-lasting campaigns where we find our greatest reward.
In 2000, the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative, a coalition of public health organizations in South Carolina, began what would become a ten-year quest to increase the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax, which had not been raised since 1977. The group hired Davis Public Relations in 2006 to manage the overall campaign and media relations efforts. Their experience is a true lesson in the adage that persistence pays off.
The Collaborative’s overall message was simple and based on research from more than 100 independent studies: raise the cigarette tax to keep kids from smoking. Each year the campaign was divided into a three-prong approach with tactics specific to legislators, grassroots advocates and statewide media. The Collaborative worked year after year to identify legislative champions, mobilize thousands of grassroots advocates statewide and secure the support of the state’s editorial boards. A full case study can be found at our website.
It took until 2006 to even get a hearing on a bill, which passed a sub-committee but was defeated in full committee. During the 2007-2008 session, the legislature passed a bill but it was vetoed by the Governor and that veto was sustained. Finally, during the 2009-2010 legislative session, a bill passed both the House and Senate. Despite another gubernatorial veto, both bodies of the legislature voted to override the veto to make the bill a law effective July 1, 2010.
We learned several lessons over the course of this campaign. We learned that message discipline and consistency is vital. As the debate raged on year after year, first about whether or not to raise the tax, and then about how the revenues should be allocated, the Collaborative remained consistent in our messaging that the increase would first and foremost be about youth smoking prevention.
We learned that bringing additional partners into the campaign expanded not only our outreach but also our perspective. As a very close-knit group that had worked together for many years, it was challenging at times to bring new people and new organizations into the fold, but their fresh insight was critical to helping us expand our network and build upon successful strategies.
We learned that when the going gets tough, the tough really do get going. Despite years of setbacks and defeat, we kept pushing the issue because each of our partners recognized the greater good that would come from successful passage of the legislation. We knew that the health of our kids both now and in the future was at stake, and that kept us pushing forward.
Finally, we learned that it is important at each step of the campaign to say thank you. Even in the years in which we didn’t accomplish our goal, we took the time to thank our champions – both legislators and advocates in communities across South Carolina. After continually asking legislators for their support and asking advocates to call, write and visit their elected officials, we couldn’t forget to thank each of them for sticking with us for so long.
In the end, persistence pays off.