Developing an Earned Media Strategy in Legislative or Ballot Campaigns

Your communications plan should open with a short landscape analysis that highlights either the opportunity or the need for a particular campaign. It’s one to two paragraphs and tees up the need for the communications work of the campaign. This is a good place to ensure the “boilerplate” for your campaign – the “about us” language, so that everyone is clear on the campaign or coalition’s well-defined objective.

Defining your Objective

Every campaign is driven by specific, measurable objectives. This is the portion of the communications plan where you need to delineate the objective of the campaign, as well as any milestones necessary to achieve that objective. A good objective is: “We are working to pass HB 123, an update to our state’s civil rights amendment, so that LGBT people in our state are protected from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.”

It’s important to differentiate the communication objectives and tactics used for a public education campaign versus a legislative or ballot campaign. For legislative and ballot campaigns, avoid overly broad objectives that are well beyond the scope of your specific campaign. A bad objective for a campaign communications plan is something like, “We are working to raise the visibility of LGBT people in our communities.” This is broad, hard to measure, and does not advance you toward the incremental and measurable victories you need to win a legislative or ballot fight.

Audiences and Decision Maker(s)

All of our communications in any given campaign are geared toward moving one or more decision maker(s). Decision maker(s) are the people who have the power to move us toward either victory or defeat.

Decision makers are typically legislators or a governor in legislative campaigns, or specific voter blocs in ballot campaigns. When defining our decision makers, we should be as specific as possible. For example, if we need to move Republican lawmakers – who do we need to move the most? Republicans from rural or urban areas? Republicans aligned closely with communities of faith? With businesses? If we’re talking about voting blocs, what types of voters? The more specific you can be in defining who exactly you need to move to secure a win, the more targeted and effective your communications will be.

Once you identify your decision maker(s), it’s time to identify your audiences. These are the people who the decision makers listen to, and you will want to target communications specifically at these audiences so that decision makers feel either public support or public pressure to take certain actions. Audiences can include:

  • Small business owners
  • People of faith
  • People from a specific community within a state or municipality
  • People of a specific age or demographic

Just as with decision makers, you want to be as precise as possible in narrowing down your definition of audiences.


It is critically important that everyone within your campaign understands the core messages. This is the portion of the communications plan where you include your key messages. Brevity is critical – you should be able to summarize your overall messaging in three to four bullet points. You also can include several variations of messaging that would be used for different audiences (i.e., business-centric messaging versus faith-based messaging, etc.)

Here are some examples of early messages developed for the 2015 Freedom Massachusetts campaign to add gender identity to the commonwealth’s public accommodations nondiscrimination protections:

Set One

  • We all want to be able to participate fully in our communities. That includes going out to the movies or a restaurant, shopping, and just enjoying places like parks with our friends and loved ones, without fear of discrimination.
  • But right now, Massachusetts law doesn’t protect our transgender friends and neighbors from discrimination in public places – the places all of us are when we’re not working, at home or at school.
  • Ultimately, this is about how we treat each other.
  • None of us would want to face discrimination when it comes to being served by a business or government office – that’s why we need to fix our law so we extend these commonsense protections to transgender Bay Staters.

Set Two

  • Massachusetts is home to world-renowned academic institutions and innovative companies that are forging new paths in technology and commerce. We’re home to a proud and diverse population.
  • But it’s actually still legal in Massachusetts to discriminate against our transgender friends and neighbors in places like hotels, restaurants, stores and parks – essentially, the places where all of us are when we’re not working, at home or at school.
  • That doesn’t reflect the values of the schools and businesses that call the Bay State home.
  • But we can fix this problem by passing legislation that extends these commonsense protections to our transgender friends and neighbors. Then we can truly live in a state where everyone is treated fairly and equally under the law.

Refer to our Spokesperson Guide one-pager for our recommendations on messages for each spokesperson.


Recruiting spokespeople can be a time-consuming task, but is one that is absolutely essential to ensuring your message reaches your audiences and decision makers. It’s important to have a deep and diverse bench of spokespeople for your campaign, including:

  • Local small business owners
  • Major businesses located in your state or municipality
  • LGBT people
  • Families of LGBT people
  • Law enforcement officials
  • People of faith
  • Conservatives and Republican party leaders
  • Elected officials/School Board Members
  • Domestic violence/Shelter administrators

In this portion of the communications plan, you should think through which spokespeople will be the most important and how you plan to train and utilize them. Consult our resource on coaching spokespeople and preparing them for interviews.


You shouldn’t start thinking about communication tactics – things like press conferences, rallies/vigils, etc. – until you’ve achieved consensus and clarity around your campaign’s objective, your decision maker and audiences and, most importantly, your messaging. All of those factors determine the tactics you should use in your campaign. This section of the plan simply delineates the tactics you plan to utilize during the course of the campaign. Tactics can include:

  • Press conferences
  • Community meeting
  • Editorial board meetings
  • Backgrounders with key reporters
  • High-profile op-eds
  • Outreach to influential columnists
  • Online ads

The list can go on and on. Where possible, identify leads from the campaign so everyone knows who is (and isn’t) responsible for producing what. Refer to our guide on earned media tactics.

Upcoming Milestones and Opportunities

Week-by-week planning is essential, particularly for making sure you’re doing the advance work needed to make events or press lifts happen. You should include a week-by-week at the conclusion of your communications plan that covers at least the first four weeks of your campaign, with particular emphasis on the first two weeks.

Sample Communications Plan

Week of 3/7:

  • Monday, 3/7:
    • Finalize press release
    • Confirm launch story set to run in newspaper with reporter
    • Ensure all campaign staffers and spokespeople have talking points
    • Ensure all campaign collateral materials are finalized.
  • Tuesday, 3/8:
    • Campaign launch with story in local publication
    • Launch press release once story is live
    • Launch website and social media properties
    • Pitch [spokespeople] to local TV and radio
  • Wednesday, 3/9:
    • Op-ed from prominent local business leader runs
  • Thursday, 3/10:
    • Press release on broad business support for campaign, includes quotes from local and big business leaders
    • Launch business coalition (quotes, etc.) across campaign social media

Week of 3/14:

  • Tuesday, 3/15:
    • Launch letter from Republican Mayors to the Governor
    • Press event w/Mayors
  • Wednesday, 3/16:
    • Op-eds from mayors run in local papers across state
  • Thursday, 3/17:
    • Lobby Day
    • Lobby Day press event
  • Friday, 3/18:
    • Op-ed from parent of LGBT person who participated in Lobby Day runs online; campaign shares with local and national groups to amplify.

Week of 3/21:

  • Press release on ramped up field organizing and public engagement
  • Possible press event with local academic institutions
  • Press release on new report issued from a local advocacy group

Caution on Correcting Media Misinformation

In LGBT nondiscrimination campaigns, the use of anti-transgender messages or claims of attacks on the freedom of religion have been used to poison public dialogue on updating nondiscrimination laws. It is precisely this misinformation that causes deep conflict for voters and legislators leading to a rift between what a person believes about the equality of all people and their vote on LGBT nondiscrimination. These distortions are pervasive in media especially in this moment when public awareness of LGBT nondiscrimination continues to grow. The same culture change that must happen for LGBT people nationally must also happen in newsrooms.

Campaigns will, therefore, grapple with the question of how much time they should dedicate to advancing their message versus correcting misinformation. The premise of this work being that more accurate coverage might mean readers will leave an article or newscast with a more fair understanding of the issues. But accomplishing either takes a serious time commitment that not all campaigns can afford. Attempting to tackle one depends on the strength of your campaign’s relationships with journalists and outlets. And, as we have learned from research and past campaigns, facts and fair reporting does not always lead to understanding or support among readers.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule on how to approach this question, deciding to do one or both must be a strategic decision. Before making a decision, consider the pervasiveness of the misrepresentations within the context of your campaign’s key messages, an assessment of the overall coverage of the campaign, and the success you have with past attempts to correct media misinformation. Also think about whether the fixes themselves will have a meaningful impact on the campaign. For example, a printed correction (if you can get one!) on a story cannot undo the damage done by the original story, which has already gone in circulation. However educating a journalist to avoid using b-roll of bathrooms in their package might be a worthwhile undertaking if it means they will avoid these misrepresentations in the future. An even better use of time is actually providing journalists with better b-roll like visuals from your campaign or events so they are not relying on unhelpful footage.

In the end, the key question is this: do you have enough expertise and capacity to do this well so you are have a positive, long-term effect on coverage of your campaign? If the answer is no, then it might best to direct your limited time elsewhere.

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