Working With Good Research

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My colleagues Mark McNeely and Alice Chapman, along with an incredible MP&F team, have just completed a clean sweep of national awards honoring their work for the statewide “Red White and Food” campaign to allow the sale of wine in Tennessee retail food stores.

RW&F team

MP&F staff members who worked on the Red White and Food campaign, pictured with local and national awards won on behalf of their work for the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association and Tennessee retail food stores.

Not only did they win “Best of Show” at the local Parthenon Awards last spring, they’ve just completed the trifecta of national awards – the SABRE Award, the Silver Anvil Award and the PRWeek Public Affairs Campaign of the Year award. For a Nashville public relations firm to claim all of these awards in one year for one campaign is like the Vanderbilt baseball team winning the national championship. It can happen. But when it does, it calls for a real celebration.

The reasons for the victory are numerous:

  • It was a battle waged over seven years;
  • It required changes in state law that were adamantly opposed by some of Tennessee’s most effective and entrenched lobbies; and
  • It was a multistep process that involved not only legislative battles, but also petition drives to get the issue on local ballots across the state, and then holding referendums in each of the 78 local municipalities where it made it onto the ballot. We won all 78! The winning percentages ranged from 65% to 79%.

To say that this effort required every tool in the PR toolkit – and then some – is an understatement. And the battle is not over, as the Alcoholic Beverage Commission is now grappling with the wave of applications that are supposed to be processed by July 1, when the law is set to take effect.

But I want to leave those pressing matters for a moment, and focus on one aspect of this campaign that is at the heart of its success – research. This is something we preach to our clients daily – start with research – so when we have a case study this successful, it deserves an extra moment of reflection.

When we first went to work with the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association back in 2006 to begin the fight for wine in retail food stores, Mark’s first recommendation was simple: “Before we do anything, we need to find out what the public thinks.” After all, if wine were going to make it onto grocery shelves, it would happen only if there were overwhelming support.

In 2007, Mark and Alice, along with MP&F editorial and research director Roger Shirley, fashioned a 12-minute, statewide, scientific telephone survey – with a 4.4% margin of error – that asked a number of questions about the issue and tested arguments for and against allowing retail food store wine sales. A second survey tracking against that benchmark was conducted in 2009. Both surveys confirmed that a majority favored the sales, with a substantial number of undecideds; but they also showed opposition was soft, and generally in “dry,” rural counties. It also indicated a strong base of support on which to build.

When the legislative approach shifted to allowing referendums in “wet” counties and municipalities, it became essential to understand where those local voters stood. Our third statewide poll, conducted two months before Election Day, showed the public had largely made up its mind, that support was overwhelming and that undecideds were unlikely to break against that trend. In a nutshell, we knew the final campaign should be based strictly on a get-out-the-vote strategy. If we could get supporters to the polls, we predicted, the referendums would pass with about 70% of the vote. We nailed it.

The research informed the campaign on every level. First of all, it gave this underdog effort a huge boost of confidence. Once we knew where the public stood, the effort ahead became worth it, because ultimately our job was to let the voice of the people be heard, and that is something the MP&F team knew how to do.

In any campaign, the daily ebb and flow of events can require course corrections and split-second decisions that can take a campaign off course. That’s especially true in a campaign that lasts seven years. You need a north star. That’s what good research gave us in the wine campaign.

Knowing public sentiment is one thing. Seeing a campaign flawlessly executed over seven years to turn public sentiment into public policy is another. To say that MP&F is proud of the Red White and Food campaign only begins to describe our collective sense of satisfaction. And what makes us especially proud is that this campaign reinforced one of the fundamental truths of our business – the best strategies are those informed by quality research.

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