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Barton Springs and Creek: A Case Study

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Running a Campaign

by Benjamin Longstreth, The River Network, Inc.

Research public knowledge and opinion.

The SOS [Save Our Springs] coalition needed information about Austin's voters in order to plan the most effective campaign strategies. It used a pollster to research public opinion and voting patterns and asked the pollster to determine which communities supported the initiative; this information allowed the coalition to focus its efforts where they would be most productive. SOS also asked the pollster to test out various wordings for its message; this allowed SOS to craft the most effective message. Dean Rindy believes that to create an effective message and deliver it where it matters, you need to be informed about voter opinion; a well designed poll can provide the necessary information.

Develop one message with universal appeal.

The SOS team decided that they would stick with one central, easily understood message with universal appeal: clean water. The coalition intentionally restricted its message to clean water; it did not stray into the issues of habitat protection and endangered species which were relevant to development projects in the Barton Springs watershed. Ms. Ballew said, "Many people sensed that campaigning on behalf of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander would not gather as broad support as clean water in the spring system since the spring is historically relevant and everyone had a strong response to clean water." This sense was reinforced by a 1992 Money magazine survey indicating the importance of various criteria in determining where people choose to live. Clean water was at the top of this list as the most important factor in their decisions. Therefore, throughout the campaign, the message remained: support SOS in order to keep the waters of Barton Springs clean.

Designate one spokesperson.

The SOS coalition hired Brigid Shea to be its director and primary spokesperson. Brigid Shea came from Clean Water Action and National Public Radio; she had considerable background in the particular issues and in crafting and delivering a public message. According to Dean Rindy, designation one spokesperson was important so that all of the coalition members could deliver a single, well crafted message "with one voice." The SOS statements delivered by people other than Ms. Shea "were channeled through the SOS leadership" in order to ensure consistency in SOS's voice. George Cofer agrees that in a campaign "the important thing is that the message be relevant, easily understood, often repeated, and never vary."

Before the coalition formed, there had been many voices from the environmental community. The public and press heard a fragmented message, too far to the right for some, too far to the left for others. With a primary spokesperson and oversight, the leadership could control the message SOS delivered. Having a spokesperson also increased press coverage since the press became familiar with Ms. Shea and how to access the views of SOS through her.

Identify a strong symbol for your campaign.

Barton Springs was the symbol for the campaign; it represented what the SOS ordinance would protect. While the health of the spring itself was an important reason for the campaign, development of the Hill Country and contamination of the aquifer were also at issue. These concerns are not as tangible as Barton Springs. Everyone in Austin knew about and could picture the springs; most people had even been swimming there. Therefore, in its campaign, the coalition often made Barton Springs represent all of the issues. That Barton Springs was the major symbol of the campaign does not mean that the coalition did not vigorously educated the public about the importance of the creek and watershed at large.

Barton Springs proved to be a strong campaign symbol. Many of the coalition's video advertisements and publications began by tracing the springs through Austin's historical development. The advertisements continued by describing the springs as the heart of Austin. For example, Dean Rindy's fifteen-minute video developed to promote the SOS initiative refers to Barton Springs as "the soul of Austin" and sets forth the question, "if Barton Creek is the soul of Austin, then what happens to a community that sells its soul?" As Dean Rindy noted, the SOS coalition was "lucky because Barton Springs was a symbol of the community." Although there are probably few symbols as readily promoted for both a community and watershed as Barton Springs, carefully choose the symbol for your campaign.

Convey your message through several media.

The Coalition conveyed its message through several mediums: position papers, brochures, newspapers, radio, TV news-stories, public forums, and promotional videos. George Cofer believes that, though expensive, "using several mediums is critical." Before the hectic campaign began, SOS volunteers put together abundant written materials such as flyers, brochures, and position papers which described the creek, the coalition, and the SOSD proposal. A member of the coalition, The Save Barton Creek Association, worked with the Austin Parks Department to produce a high quality educational booklet called "Hill Country Oasis." With many photographs and clear writing, it describes the history, archeology and ecology of Barton Springs, Barton Creek and the Edwards Aquifer. It ends with a description of the threats to the creek and a plea for individuals to help keep it clean.

Dean Rindy created several inspirational videos of Barton Creek that demonstrated to people both the beauty of the river and the pollution destroying parts of it. He believes that showing people the creek on video was essential. "It was a revelation to the average voter to see the river because most people don't get out and see a wild and scenic river," says Rindy. The campaign displayed the videos in stores and at presentations, and gave copies to the media who ran it on late night TV and on local news programs. Dean Rindy believes that it is important to obtain professional assistance with all of these writing and media projects but that help is particularly needed with video projects. This does not necessarily require much money if you can, as SOS did, get most people to donate their time.

Because the coalition utilized so many different mediums, it was especially important that the message was clearly articulated early on in the campaign. As different people work on different projects, it is difficult to maintain a single concerted message. The coalition avoided this by planning its message early. Dean Rindy recalls that "the message was determined and coordinated form the start so that all mediums overlapped."

Gather the center and right, don't preach to the environmental choir.

The SOS coalition made a concerted effort from the very start of its campaign to reach the broadest possible voter base. Dean Rindy believes that this strategy is especially important with the advent of the "wise use" movement. In order to create broad appeal, the coalition had to craft a message that did not appear to be a radical environmental position. This need was reflected in SOS's decision to restrict it message to clean water. Helen Ballew emphasized the moderate nature of SOS's proposal by simply stating that "the SOS initiative is not a radical environmental position."

Recruit support from the business community.

Helen Ballew anticipated that developers would try to create the impression that the SOS proposal would harm Austin's businesses. A year before the campaign, she began to counteract this potential argument by recruiting businesses through the "Another Business For Barton Springs" campaign. She printed stickers with that logo on them and brochures that discussed the need to protect Barton Creek. Businesses donated money to the Hill Country Foundation and displayed the logo and brochures. Part of the money went to a newspaper in which the businesses proclaimed their support for the Creek and the importance of a healthy environment in attracting more business to Austin. In the ad the Hill Country Foundation also encouraged people to shop at the participating stores. Ballew began this project, enlisting 120 businesses, one year before the SOS campaign began. When the campaign began, SOS immediately highlighted the support of these businesses.

Ballew believes that this business support was the best way to deliver the "real important message in SOS's campaign that protecting the environment was good for business, that people locate businesses here in Austin because of our environment." This was also a way to broaden support for SOS to undecided citizens, minority communities, and other businesses. Dean Rindy believes that "businesses lent mainstream credibility to a supposedly radical environment position." Ballew echoed this belief when she commented that the "Another Business for Barton Springs" project was invaluable to the effort to show that the springs were a major community concern. Not just environmentalists, but businesses, even real estate interests, supported it." Recruiting businesses had the added benefit of raising money for the campaign: $25,000 by the end of the campaign.

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