By this stage in the campaign our regional communications directors had already held more than 200 pressers all across the state. To capitalize on the Million Signature March in Columbus, regional communications directors held 44 news conferences, as many as three each day, at local county board of elections offices on June 30 and July 1. We announced the local county signature totals and the movement was front page, above the fold, in nearly every major and local newspaper. The Fourth of July weekend was upon us and the 1.3 million signatures commanded the holiday coverage.

Traditional Campaign Kick-Off

The two months between the Fourth of July and Labor Day can feel like a black hole. There was some concern that the long, hot summer would kill volunteer enthusiasm. In reality, the opposite occurred. While we waited for an issue number and ballot language, our volunteers were calling and posting on Facebook and Twitter and our new media team continued building an online army of supporters who were ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice with more than 230,000 people who could be contacted on Facebook.  

Work was also being completed on the “Friends and Family” tool which would allow supporters to register online via Facebook and talk directly with their friends and family about why they should vote no on Issue 2. Public employees continued to serve as surrogates, speaking firsthand about the devastating cuts and the sacrifices they were making to help offset local budget cuts.

At the end of July, with a no vote on Issue 2 secured and a strong narrative, our volunteers hit the streets and began working the phones. By the time reporters were writing their annual Labor Day campaign kick-off pieces, we had already tested and secured a message that resonated with voters.

Shortly after being elected, but before taking office, Kasich had told statehouse lobbyists to either get on his bus or it would run them over. So we decided to launch the People’s Bus Tour, featuring a firefighter from our first paid television ad. We promised our bus would not run over anyone. The statewide bus tour coincided with the first week of early voting and rolled into every major television market in the state, urging Ohioans to go to the polls early.

On the first leg of the tour, a statehouse reporter covering our beat on a daily basis jumped on the bus. The extended interview and two press conferences generated positive coverage, which set the tone for media coverage for the rest of the tour. The buzz about the tour caused crowds to build at each stop, crowds that then went and voted early. The visual of the People’s Bus and our logos and graphics appeared in newspapers and television stations for a solid week. 

Down the stretch, the topper for us was an ad featuring a great-grandmother and her great-granddaughter. The ad showed Grandmother Marlene’s support for Cincinnati firefighters who rescued and resuscitated her great granddaughter Zoey from a burning building, highlighting that a quick response time, well-trained firefighters and appropriate staffing levels made the difference between life and death for a little girl.

The ad began airing with little fanfare the weekend following our bus tour. Early the next week, we awoke to an opposition ad, which also featured Marlene. Our opponents had twisted her words and stole footage from our ad to make it appear as if Marlene supported S.B. 5 and a yes vote on Issue 2.

Immediately the press and our supporters began questioning the spot. We had Marlene sign a letter denouncing the ad and asked our opponents and television stations to pull it immediately from the airwaves. Our legal team stepped in with the same request. Television stations were hesitant to lose advertising dollars so we took matters into our own hands.

We issued a press release with links to both ads. Our new media team pushed it out on Facebook and Twitter. We then produced our own video showing the two ads side by side so the public could easily see our opponent’s attempt to manipulate Marlene’s words and image. We asked Facebook and Twitter followers to sign a petition asking the stations to pull the ads and we sent an email out to our supporters from Marlene with the subject line: “Did you see what they did to me?”

More than 20,000 people signed the petition so we starting directing supporters to the Facebook pages of local TV stations where thousands of angry Ohioans demanded the ad come down. Within 48 hours, 34 television stations pulled the spot.

Their work on what is now known as #grannygate, earned our new media team the well-deserved nickname the “A-Team.” Their online stats confirm it. Over that span, we added 13,565 Facebook fans and 33,265 people shared our stories on Facebook. Our reach that week was 4.4 million, and we served 22 million impressions during #grannygate week. The seven-day news cycle generated untold amounts of earned media and was a shot in the arm to our supporters.

Our earned media plan was already loaded and ready to be executed in October. In the three weeks following the bus tour, in addition to the Marlene coverage, we prepared and rolled out a study showing public employees had made more than $1 billion in shared sacrifices through pay cuts, wage freezes, and increased contributions to their healthcare and pensions. We also featured teachers, nurses and veterans to dominate earned media coverage throughout the month.

Coming into October, public polling showed the race tightening with only a 13-point margin, the smallest of the campaign. Polling following our earned media blitz in October, with the added benefit of #grannygate, showed the margin opened up to more than 20 points. Dominating the message battle secured a groundswell of support going into the final week before Election Day.

Earned Media Wins

We Are Ohio set up a well-oiled earned media machine that had never before existed in Ohio politics. We placed regional communications directors in virtually every corner of the state and they averaged three press conferences a week, totaling more than 500 over the course of the campaign. We assembled a social and new media A-Team, which was able to engage tens of thousands of our supporters daily around our message and events. We nurtured our relationships with the press and thus regularly won the messaging battle.

It’s how just two hours after the polls closed, two teachers and a firefighter were able to stand on stage and claim victory for all middle class Ohioans with an astounding 61 percent of the vote. 

Dennis Willard, founder and president of Precision Media and Public Relations, and Melissa Fazekas, spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, began working in opposition to Senate Bill 5 prior to the formation of We Are Ohio. They developed the earned media campaign plan and joined We Are Ohio in May 2011.