The Hyatt Regency ballroom in Columbus is packed. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister is blasting amid the revelry. Two teachers and a firefighter are surrounded by dozens of working people—folks who rarely find themselves standing on a stage in front of thousands of supporters—to announce the once unthinkable: Ohio Senate Bill 5 is dead.

With 61 percent of the vote, Ohioans overwhelmingly supported their everyday heroes, rejecting a law that curtailed collective bargaining rights for state workers.

A year after a national GOP landslide that saw the emergence of Republican governors and Republican legislative majorities in Ohio and elsewhere, this result was a stinging rebuke to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and to a Republican-led state legislature that was hell-bent on trying to trounce the rights of Ohio workers.      

The crushing defeat of Senate Bill 5 was not happenstance. It was the result of a well-calculated campaign plan, which hinged on using earned media to put the faces and voices of real middle class Ohioans front and center. The fight for the middle class had started months earlier, but on Election night the core themes remained the same: rights, safety, jobs, community, and fairness. From May until November, We Are Ohio held more than 520 news conferences in every region of the state, consistently hammering home the underlying message that S.B. 5 was unfair, unsafe and would hurt the state’s local communities.

We decided early on that we’d win this battle with the very people who were being attacked—the public employees themselves. We would feature their stories, their faces, and their voices. Our opponents wanted to paint public employees as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts with a target on their backs. We countered by portraying them as three-dimensional: they delivered vital public services, they were friends, family, neighbors, volunteers and fellow churchgoers; and they spent their wages in their communities as customers helping to drive local economic engines.

For all the national media attention heaped on this initiative, understand that to win big in Ohio it is just as important to be on the front page of the Marietta Times as it is to be on the front page of the New York Times. New tools emerge every day to help campaigns drive their message, but nothing replaces good old fashioned hard work and strong relationships with the media when it comes to winning the message battle. That was our starting point.

Cold February Days

The eyes of the nation were largely on Wisconsin in February 2011 when extreme politicians in Ohio began their own quest to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public employees. But unlike Wisconsin, Ohio’s legislation went further and included firefighters and police officers. It also included provisions which made it illegal for them to bargain over safe staffing levels. Thousands marched, packed protests and sat in the Ohio Statehouse to show their disdain for the legislation and the flawed legislative process. 

In Wisconsin, legislators fled the state in an attempt to stop GOP lawmakers from moving forward with legislation to roll back collective bargaining rights. Talk of individual recall elections began. While the focus in Wisconsin remained on the massive protests taking place at the state capitol, we made a conscious decision to move away from the statehouse in Ohio, knowing that defeating S.B. 5 wasn’t likely. Ohio doesn’t have a recall option for public officials. We rightly figured that Ohioans would be left with only one path: a referendum, which we dubbed a citizen’s veto of S.B. 5 to empower our supporters. And so we went to work preparing for the eventual fight long before S.B. 5 won passage.    

To win a citizen’s veto through a referendum we would need to win in all corners of the state—not just Columbus. To have a real chance, we knew it was time to start pushing out the message to all 88 counties. Democratic members of the House and Senate began holding town hall meetings and rallies in an effort to allow their constituents the opportunity to speak since they were being literally locked out of their statehouse. In near blizzard conditions, hundreds of people crowded into small meeting spaces all across Ohio. Local newspapers and television and radio stations covered every meeting and rally. Opponents of the bill were already dominating media coverage.

The task to stop a law in Ohio is no small one. It takes serious manpower, a strong communications, field and outreach infrastructure; sophisticated technology and sheer determination. The building blocks were in place and when Kasich signed S.B. 5 into law in late March, we had just 90 days to collect 231,149 valid signatures to get this on the ballot.  

The Million Signature March

If politics makes strange bedfellows, S.B. 5 proved the point. Democrats, Republicans, independents and Tea Party members signed our petitions and then many hit the streets to help collect more signatures. Supporters were not just asking where to sign, but how to circulate.

The growing group of supporters who wanted to be involved rapidly evolved. Demand exceeded expectations and the new media team began to utilize the We Are Ohio website and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the more than 10,000 volunteers collecting signatures. Just maintaining the signing locations became a full-time job for our web coordinator. We created Facebook event pages and tweeted signature gathering locations throughout the day. Reporters, meanwhile, were looking for local angles on S.B. 5. The goal now was to squeeze every drop of potential out of our earned media efforts, which were being generated thanks to the momentum of our signature efforts.

We placed regional communications directors in strategic locations throughout the state to help drive earned media coverage. We held at least three pressers a week in every region of the state. “Win Every Monday” was born. We started each week with eight earned media events—either positive pressers or attacks on our opponents to put them back on their heels. You couldn’t pick up a paper in any city or village and not see coverage of our events.

The local pressers focused on links between state budget cuts to local communities and S.B. 5, businesses who supported public and private employees to underscore the negative impact on Mom and Pop shops on Main Street, and petition signing events. At each presser we featured local public employees. The goal was to win Monday and not take our foot off the gas for the rest of the week. 

Our strategy on petition gathering was unique because our feeling was that no campaign in Ohio history had ever enjoyed the luxury of so many motivated and committed volunteer circulators. By law, we were required to collect 231,149 valid signatures. We also had to collect three percent of the vote total of the 2010 gubernatorial race in a minimum of 44 counties. Both requirements had to be met to achieve ballot placement.

We employed some outside-the-box tactics to gather signatures, including drive thru petition signings at county courthouses, parks, and labor halls. We also set up tables on county squares and at grocery stores in the smaller counties. We went to farmers markets and college campuses. Our data team tracked under-performing counties and we dispatched strike teams to those counties to encourage more signature collection.

Every Saturday, regional communications directors held news conferences at local signing events. They were able to generate earned media by publicizing the events with press advisories and media calendar placement. We were able to use the earned media prior to the event to get people to the location to sign and after the event for positive coverage of the campaign.

Demand was contagious. Our earned media communications team, along with the field and outreach teams drove people to the places to sign. We also had an events page on our website that we promoted via Facebook and Twitter, which allowed citizens to see where and when in their county they could sign.

Reporters began calling every day to see how many signatures had been collected. We decided to release the total numbers twice prior to delivery to the Ohio Secretary of State. We teased the release via Facebook and Twitter. We encouraged our followers to also sign up for our text messaging program by promising they would be the first to learn the actual number via text message from the campaign.

Knowing the total number was going to be historic, the “People’s Parade” became the motto and in only 10 days the large-scale event was planned and executed. On June 29th, at 5:30 a.m., volunteers began loading 1,507 boxes of signatures into a 48-foot long semi-truck that was decked out in We Are Ohio branding. Police cars escorted the semi to the launching site for the parade. We marched through the heart of the city, led by a string of volunteers bearing a “Million Signature March” banner. Drivers honked their horns in solidarity as we passed the statehouse on our way to delivering the largest number of signatures in Ohio history. 

We announced that an unprecedented and historic 1, 298,301 signatures had been collected from all 88 Ohio counties. A short time later, as we delivered box after box to the secretary of state’s 15th floor office, a structural engineer was called in to determine whether the building was safe.

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.