Advocates for affordable housing and a high-powered public relations firm make an unlikely team, at first glance. But that’s exactly who teamed up over the past couple years to create a statewide media campaign in Minnesota aimed at improving public opinion of affordable housing.
In 1999, the Minneapolis Foundation announced a competition to award funds to a nonprofit agency that could “change the often negative and misunderstood public image of people who need and require affordable housing.” The Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP) and six other organizations formed HousingMinnesota to apply. HousingMinnesota represented central city organizers, regional and rural agencies, housing developers, and funders, but the Foundation also required applicants to team up with an advertising or public relations firm. HousingMinnesota selected GCI Tunheim, a Twin Cities-based PR firm with national credits, in part because their staff includes former public officials familiar with the issues, and in part because of the firm’s experience with collaboratively-led campaigns: they understood how to work with a bunch of independent-minded advocate leaders.
After the HousingMinnesota proposal was selected for the $250,000 grant, we set about implementing our winning approach, based on two principles. First, the campaign had to be a statewide effort that could lead to significant policy change and secure substantial resources for housing. Second, it should include advertising, public relations, and grassroots outreach. We envisioned a campaign that moved from general public education to policy advocacy over several phases.
MHP took the lead in managing the overall campaign and ensuring community input. Representatives from the six organizations oversaw the campaign budget and the development of messages and images that were used on billboards, radio ads, bus signs, and newspaper ads across the state. The campaign was officially launched at a press conference hosted by Governor Jesse Ventura, a media magnet whose appearance drew coverage in more than 20 television and radio stations and newspapers, reaching millions of Minnesotans. Campaign staff appeared on radio talk shows and developed commentaries that were reprinted in newspapers throughout the state, and the campaign and its message percolated through the news media in both news stories and editorials. The campaign also reached 15,000 agencies and individuals through outreach with more than 90 partners, among them church congregations and local government officials. Partners were given training sessions on working with the media, and top-of-the-line PR material, including a glossy eight-page brochure to share with their constituencies.
The public face of the campaign was deceptively simple. Behind the scenes, the strategy was complex and nuanced, and the process was a learning experience. The first step in the public education media campaign was developing messages and images that would communicate three elements: 1) people who need affordable housing are varied in their backgrounds and circumstances; 2) housing is fundamental to people becoming successful community members; and 3) the availability of housing, in various configurations and price levels, is important to strong communities. Based on these elements, we developed three primary images: a teacher who cannot afford to live in the community in which she works, a senior on fixed income facing a rent increase, and a child forced to constantly change schools as his family moves from apartment to apartment.
Housing Minnesota used advertisements like this one to raise public awareness of the value of affordable housing.
We grappled with many choices in creating those primary images, boiling down the varied interests of our broad collaborative – which ranged from the low-income organizing group ACORN to the rental property owners’ trade association – into a very limited number of advertising products that would be viewed for about 1.5 seconds each. We needed to convey racial and age diversity, use rural and urban settings, respond to ownership and rental needs, and link housing to success in education and employment.
Some questions were particularly thorny. For example, do we bring attention to the challenges moderate-income families have in securing homeownership? It’s not a crisis, but it is an important housing issue facing the state. We chose to do this indirectly by identifying a wide variety of occupations affected by the shortage of affordable housing.
Race posed another critical challenge to our coalition, which included many central city groups who were focused on civil rights and fair housing issues. These groups found race to be the primary reason why neighborhoods oppose affordable housing. African Americans also make up nearly half of Minnesota’s homeless population. We didn’t want to ignore these facts, but we also wanted to make clear that the need for affordable housing is not just a central city, African American issue.
Our talking points stated, in essence, that we recognized that racism permeates the affordable housing crisis on a number of levels. However, we did not believe that a race-focused campaign would change the perception of the issue or broaden support for housing. In a state that’s 93 percent white, the campaign had to build ownership of the issue among white and suburban constituents. We wanted to build a new constituency for the issue among people who may not have considered the issue relevant to their lives. There were other public education campaigns underway in the state that dealt directly with fair housing and discrimination against immigrant populations. Therefore, our campaign chose only to portray diversity in our images, communicating that a cross section of the community is affected by the lack of affordable housing. Nonetheless, several advocates deemed our communications plan a failure because we did not put racism and classism at the center of the campaign.
Working with the professional PR firm also had its ups and downs. GCI Tunheim kept us on topic and on deadline, and helped us work through things like the race issue by urging us to develop and agree to a set of talking points, as a means of building a consensus within our team. The process helped to clear our logic, and made us better able to communicate our position on this sensitive topic.
But there were also problems on both ends. Our professional advertising partners were not quite ready for the complexity of affordable housing and were taxed by our seemingly endless deliberation to get it right. In addition, they found much of the input to be inconsistent and last-minute, as different advocates weighed in at different meetings. On the advocates’ side it was difficult to focus on only a few key messages, and to adjust to the inflexible time-lines established by advance purchases of billboard and other advertising space.
In hindsight, the media professionals and advocates should have committed more time at the front end to understanding each other’s expectations and constraints and creating a clear process for resolving disagreements.
We also learned that getting it right was not just an internal decision. At the point we had completed design work and were ready to go to production, our Minneapolis Foundation staff liaison suggested that we present our work to the president of the foundation. We did, and he was concerned that some of the ads lacked bite. (He was right.) Changes had to be made. From that point forward none of our ads showed a smiling face.
Balancing the demands of the PR and grassroots approaches was also tough. We had three strategies for distributing the messages we developed: advertising; ‘free’ media opportunities, such as op-ed pieces and news coverage; and using our collaborative partners to communicate our messages throughout their networks. Although we committed considerable time to the second two implementation strategies, the advertising process was so intense it dominated our time, and made us miss opportunities for taking full advantage of the other methods.
This year, the campaign’s second phase will focus on building and coordinating support among the community ‘sectors’ that we believe are critical to achieving affordable housing policy success: business, organized labor, local government officials, faith communities, housing and low-income advocates, and people directly affected by the shortage of affordable housing.
In 2003, the campaign’s third and final phase will focus on achieving a public policy objective. The skid in the economy presents a formidable challenge, but the hardship of the recession also creates new focus on meeting the basic needs of the state’s residents.
We don’t really know if we changed the public’s perception of people who need affordable housing. But we created a campaign with momentum, excitement, and broad participation, and a sound platform from which to move into policy advocacy. We learned a bit about selling the sizzle. And along the way Minnesotans learned a bit about affordable housing.