The integrated campaign to save San Francisco General

In 2008, San Francisco faced the prospect of losing San Francisco General Hospital, the only Level 1 trauma center serving millions of people, not just in San Francisco but the entire Bay area, and a critical component of health care in the city.

A new state law mandated that all hospitals be seismically retrofitted to survive an earthquake by 2013—and the only way to save SF General Hospital would be to issue an $800 million bond to pay for the rebuilding of the hospital.

Passing a bond in California requires a two-thirds majority so the challenge was clear: We were going to need a big win in a presidential year, competing with many state and local ballot measures and candidates. Our firm, Whitehurst Mosher Campaign Strategy and Media had a long road ahead of it.

The “Yes on A/Save SF General” campaign began the race with many advantages, support from all political parties and local civic leaders as well as adequate funding. To win, though, we realized we would need a campaign that integrated traditional tools (direct mail, TV and earned media) as well as new media. Recent surveys have shown online rivaling television for the amount of time adults spend with media. And some polls suggest that online is an increasingly reliable source of news for most Americans.

That’s even more true in San Francisco, where many residents work in tech companies up and down Silicon Valley. For this campaign, new media wasn’t just a gimmick tacked on to a traditional campaign plan. All of the online tools we invested in were an integrated part of the whole campaign, part of our budget and planning from the beginning.

Fran McInerney—VP of sales for Spot-on.com, which advised our firm on the media buy and Facebook strategy—put it simply: “Online advertising can no longer be an afterthought or an ‘add on’ to a campaign’s communications budget—it has to be integrated into the campaign’s plans as much as TV and other traditional campaign tools in order to be effective.”

The result was a coherent, cost effective campaign, where “traditional” campaign tools like direct mail, billboards, window cards and earned media events, worked in tandem with our “new media” tools, which included an investment in online advertising, a Facebook application and a Facebook group for supporters. Each tool communicated a simple message—save SF General Hospital—and all were integrated together; each part complimented the other to best reach voters in the city.

In addition to its advertising buys, Whitehurst Mosher partnered with Spot-on.com to produce the Facebook application for the campaign. The application worked as a virtual doorhanger or yard sign, allowing “Yes on A” supporters to display their support for the campaign to their friends.

The “Yes on A” Facebook application was more than a pretty picture on a social networking website, however. People viewing the application could immediately connect with the campaign’s website to donate money, volunteer or recruit friends to the cause. It also featured a live feed of campaign news so supporters knew the latest on the campaign trail and how they could help out. That same website’s URL was featured on all campaign mail and literature, so voters could go online to find out more information.
 


Even better, the doorhangers were distributed by supporters—volunteers and their friends who invited only people they knew on Facebook to join the campaign. “Campaign strategists work hard to get friends to tell friends about a campaign or candidate,” observed Spot-on’s Facebook Field Organizer Greg Dewar. “This online version of the traditional precinct walk did exactly that for the ‘Yes on A’ campaign.” That personal touch made voters more likely to add the application and/or support the ballot measure.

The message of the campaign was simple and packed an emotional punch—save the hospital. That made for an easier sell on Facebook than a complex issue, which can’t be explained quickly, and that made it a good investment for the campaign.

Likewise, the campaign’s use of targeted, online advertising allowed it to reach voters when they were most likely to go online and find out more information after receiving a mail or sample ballot. For “Yes on A”, Spot-on advised our firm on the best web sites to buy to reach active San Francisco voters. “Yes on A” ads ran in four popular sources for local news—The San Francisco Chronicle (www.sfgate.com), SFist.com (part of the Gothamist Network), the SF Weekly (owned by Village Voice Media) and The San Francisco Bay Guardian (locally owned alternative weekly).
 


Online advertising, particularly on news-related web sites is effective as it allows the campaign to reach people where they are likely to research an issue or candidate before voting. The ads got voters to visit SaveSFGeneral.com where they could read our messages about the campaign and the hospital’s importance to all San Francisco residents. The ads drove people to the campaign’s web site, which made it easy for voters to watch video testimonials in support of the measure, find out who was endorsing it, and volunteer or donate money if they so chose. The “Yes on A” campaign, which received standard news coverage in a busy political year, was able to speak directly to voters as they were starting to make decisions about the bond measure.

On Election Day, Proposition A won with 78 percent of the vote. Turnout for the election in San Francisco was 81 percent—a record. Because the “Yes on A” campaign spent its budget on a smart mix of traditional and new media tools to get out its message in a crowded election cycle, we were able to prevail and even beat the required two-thirds majority needed.

That wasn’t the only win. In 2009, Whitehurst Mosher and Spot-On won two “Pollies” at the annual awards ceremony for the American Association of Political Consultants for their innovative use of Facebook and online advertising. Campaigns looking to succeed in 2009 and beyond would be wise to consider their investments in all forms of campaign communication and ensure that the final plan isn’t old and new tacked together, but instead a coherent, integrated campaign that ensures their message is clearly communicated to voters in the digital era.


Mark Mosher is a principal at Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners in San Francisco.