Whether you are facing an electoral campaign today or just casting a wary eye toward your legislature and local religious right groups, right now is the time to plan and create foundations for a successful media strategy. Whether you use paid advertising or not, four basic questions need to be answered for message development and delivery.
If you're not yet in an electoral situation, you have one advantage--the luxury of time--and one probable disadvantage--very little money. Money is raised in direct proportion to the immediacy and the perceived danger of an issue.
When you have time on your side, you have the chance to educate people on the issue. You can be proactive. You can promote the visibility of gays and lesbians. When we're educating, research shows we have no better tool than our visibility. Everything we do to diminish the arguments of the Right lessens their strength and may inhibit them from placing initiatives on the ballot. Even if they put an initiative on the ballot, a well- thought out, well-run period of education in the time preceding an initiativ e campaign may insure victory in the actual campaign. This indeed is the challenge most of the articles in the Fight the Right Action Kit are tackling.
During non-electoral times, we may also choose to discredit the opponent in a variety of ways. We have found it useful, for example, to point out that homosexuality is just their latest organizing tool, replacing communism and abortion rights. Without the urgency of an election, you will most likely be delivering your message through free media - the press - and in speaker forums. Even so, you will want to develop your message in the same way you would develop advertisements during a campaign.
In order to answer those four basic questions, you'll want as much information as possible. It's called research, and a good deal of information can come from polling and focus groups. In a non-electoral campaign, you probably won't have the money to do your own polling. Polling information can be obtained from gay and other organizations (Democratic Party, candidate polls, etc.). Find and work with someone who can help evaluate the polls, screening out the lousy data that some polls produce (there are good polls and lousy polls).
Whatever message you develop, you'll want to make sure everyone on your side who speaks to the public or the press knows it and can articulate it. Think of it as "Many Voices. One Message." And until you get a different answer to the four basic questions, you'll want to hammer that message home, time after time after time. A classic mistake is to get bored with your message. You may have heard it a thousand times. The reporter you're talking to, the group you're speaking in front of, may be hearing it for the first time.
You may not have the money to run paid advertising. You may, however, find a cooperative TV or radio station which will run a proactive message as a public service announcement or PSA. (The less controversial the message, the more likely they are to run it." You don't want to stake your life on PSA's - they tend to run at 2:00 in the morning. But if the opportunity comes up to do one, make sure it's in keeping with your message. And make sure it's created and produced by someone who does advertising for a living. Think of creating advertising as doing brain surgery - you might get it right doing it yourself, but why take the risk?
Though organizing, fundraising, "get out the vote "(GOTV), and canvassing are important, message development and delivery command, on average, more than 50% of the campaign funds. In statewide races, that figure can be as much as 80%. Television is the most effective way to reach people, and despite its seemingly high cost, the cheapest on a per person basis.
There are some basic realities about these campaigns. You have a limited amount of time, limited personnel and limited financial resources. You have a limited ability to deliver your message. Your audience has a limited attention span and often will be inundated with messages on a slew of other issues and candidates. Most importantly, on gay issues, you have a limited pool of favorable public opinion. Stated as a "gay" issue, you start with about 40% against you and 10-15% for you. The fight is for the 45% in the middle.
In Oregon during the No on 9 Campaign for a Hate Free Oregon, in order to find the message to reach the "middle," the campaign did a poll in early 1992. Then we used focus groups to test a variety of messages against undecided voters. In my two previous anti-gay initiative campaigns, I created advertising that broadened the issue so that people were not voting on homosexuality itself. That is not a vote we want people to make.
In our research in Oregon, we discovered that, again, we could not persuade undecided people to vote for homosexuals. What we did unearth was a relatively high negative response to the Oregon Citizens' Alliance itself. Our best message, therefore, was to frame the initiative as an assault by extremists that posed a threat to everyone. Our campaign line was "It's a danger to us all."
We created two television commercials that attacked the OCA, and started running them early on in the campaign so we could frame the debate on our terms. We trained speakers to make every discussion a discussion about them - the OCA - and not about us, gays and lesbians. We worked hard to keep up the offense and avoid being defensive.
There was considerable carping within our community that we weren't educating the public about gays and lesbians. Our goal was to win an election that was in doubt. When an election is in doubt, it is irresponsible to divert resources away from the prime objective - winning. Besides, our research showed what you would expect - that no thirty-second commercial could undo thirty or more years of learned homophobia.
We were alsotrying to get people to vote "no." This is easier than persuading them to vote "Yes." The "Yes" side has to defend itself against every possible attack. To get people to vote "No," we only have to raise a legitimate question in people's minds. (Think of it as the defense raising reasonable doubt in jurors' minds.)
We did polling on almost a daily basis for most of the last weeks of the campaign. This allowed us to measure the overall effectiveness of the campaign. It also allowed us to measure the effectiveness of individual commercials in various areas of the state.
Early on, we saw that our campaign lines, and hence, key messages were working: "Vote NO on 9," "Vote NO on discrimination," and "It's a danger to us all," were working. A caution: Polling on gay issues, like polling on racial issues, gives less than perfect results. You have to read your numbers carefully. People are not always honest, especially if their answer to a question could result in their being labeled a bigot or lumped with an unpopular organization. Your numbers will always look better than they really are.
Because the Oregon campaign was well-funded, we were able to augment our basic message with commercials against discrimination. Our research showed this was a major reason people supported us. We did ads that mirrored the broad coalition the campaign had put together, to give people the sense that everyone was voting "No on 9." Near the end of the campaign, we did a commercial to specifically blunt the other side's best message of "special rights." But everything - television, radio and print ads, canvassi ng brochures - summed up our line - "It's a danger to us all."
We won 57% to 43%.