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Nearly two weeks after the Metro Council voted to keep Mayor Kip Holden’s controversial $901 million capital-improvements package on the Nov. 14 ballot, the media campaign finally got under way. It wasn’t a minute too soon, either. The 30-second spots hit television on Oct. 26—just five days before the start of absentee voting.
Holden’s media consultant, Rannah Gray, says the TV ads always were scheduled to start the last week of October—at a time when voters were keenly focused on the issue—and that the campaign really started weeks earlier on radio and at the grass-roots level.
But experts say two weeks of TV—less, if you account for absentee voting—is very little, especially given that the mayor is trying to sell a divided electorate on a tax that will fund, in part, a $225 million riverfront economic-development project that has been the subject of intense scrutiny.
“My heart goes out to them because they’re just now getting the green light and the funding to kick off the campaign,” media consultant George Kennedy says. “I think they would have wanted to have a little more time.”
The campaign ran into difficulties when questions arose about Alive, which would be managed by the nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute. Concerns over who owns the land on which the attraction would be built, whether that land—sandwiched between River Road and the Mississippi River—floods and whether the project makes economic sense prompted some Metro Council members in early October to call for a special meeting to decide whether to allow the bond issue to remain on the ballot. It was another two weeks before that meeting took place. In the meantime, fundraising came to a standstill.
Once the council’s 6-6 vote gave the project the go-ahead, money started flowing again. As of Oct. 5, more than $350,000 had been raised. But two more weeks passed before TV ads hit the airwaves.
The TV campaign that rolled out on Oct. 26 included two 30-second spots. One featured Holden essentially delivering a recap of what the parishwide proposition would do in terms of infrastructure improvements. The second spot, which debuted later in the week, featured the mayor with some babies, conveying that what voters do today will affect Baton Rouge decades from now. The commercials aired on all major stations and parishwide cable.
The centerpiece of the television campaign, however, was a 30-minute program, Our Future Our Vision, that featured Holden, Police Chief Jeff LeDuff, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and other elected officials. The program aired Oct. 28 on WAFB-TV after its top-rated 6 p.m. newscast, and was rebroadcast on cable. The production and airtime costs for the long-form program were slightly more than $20,000, and the total media buy for that crucial first week was $60,000.
“Kip’s doing the right thing by making this about himself and putting himself out there,” media consultant Roy Fletcher says. “Kip’s got to be on TV, and he’s got to be the one selling it.”
The 30-minute program is a particularly effective tool, according to Kennedy. Popular in the 1980s and early 1990s, the long-format piece had fallen out of favor in recent years but has started to make a comeback.
“With so much competing media, if you’ve got someone watching something you better be going long, not short, with it,” he says. “It’s like if you’ve been trying to get in to see someone for a long time to sell them something and you finally get an appointment. You better be prepared when you finally get in there to give them your pitch.”
Despite the wisdom of the way the money was spent, local political strategists believe the campaign would have been better served if it had aired sooner.
“There’s been enough media attention focused on this that those who have been halfway paying attention know what’s going on,” one Republican strategist says. “He really needed to get his media out earlier to counter some of that.”
Gray disagrees. She points out that last year’s ballot featured numerous issues and candidates—including the historic presidential election—and it was important for the bond issue to appear earlier on TV. It’s the only item this year, so given the limited resources it made sense to wait until voters were focused on the issue. She also says that radio and grass-roots efforts have been under way since late August.
That’s thanks in part to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which negotiated $125,000 in in-kind contributions from media sources—namely radio-station companies—to produce and air 30-second ads that put a pro-business spin on the package. Though BRAC coordinated with Gray on the spots, its message was specifically focused on economic development.
“Our message has all been on the economic-development aspect of the bond proposal—traffic-light synchronization, public safety,” says Mike Odom, BRAC’s senior vice president of marketing and operations. “Because that’s what our members care about.”
Holden’s team—which includes Chief Administrative Officer Mike Futrell and Special Policy Adviser Walter Monsour—also has done plenty of grass-roots campaigning, speaking several times each day to civic and social groups at breakfasts, lunches and parties on the benefits of the bond issue. The administration believes these appearances have been very effective, an assessment based on the feedback Gray receives following the speeches.
“Every time we have a meeting, we hear, ‘I wasn’t sure how I was going to vote, and now you have my vote,’” she says. “So I think we have the opportunity to change some minds.”
The final element of the campaign will be the get-out-the-vote effort. Volunteer phone banks have already begun targeting those the Holden team needs to get to the polls on Nov. 14. Gray can’t say how much she expects to spend, but so far the effort has been mostly voluntary.
Given that the so-called super chronic voters are statistically the most likely to vote against a tax, the opposition already will be out in force. Holden’s camp knows it will be a close election, but they’re hoping the mayor’s salesmanship is enough to give them the edge they need.
“We’ve had a lot of momentum since the council voted and everyone sort of came back together,” Gray says. “It’s like most campaigns. Things are starting to come together at the end.”
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