>>>Padilla Speer Beardsley - Public Relations
Municipal Takeover Referenda

The Challenge

Municipal utilities groups and the local utilities see opportunities to control, and therefore tax, additional revenue streams by taking over the local natural gas distribution system from investor-owned operators. A preliminary vote of local residents is required to permit the city to proceed with the takeover. City council decisions to put the question on the ballot are often based on inaccurate financial projections and advocacy by a quasi-private state-supported organization that would replace private companies as the gas broker for such systems. Voters often vote based on these inaccurate projections and in one city when the courts set the actual value three times higher there was no recourse by the voters or the company. Padilla Speer Beardsley has been hired by natural gas companies in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Texas to conduct campaigns to educate voters about the benefits of their investor-owned natural gas distribution system.

The Strategy

Opinion research -- both formal and informal -- is always a key element in the campaigns. PSB representatives visit each community and interview city council members (who must approve putting the issue on the ballot) and other community influentials to assess what is known about the issue and what is not being considered in the analysis. Focus groups are conducted in some communities to test different messages and probe for key beliefs and attitudes on the issue. Telephone surveys are used to monitor campaign progress and identify key messages most relevant to voters.

Advocacy advertising on key issues is developed during the final months of the campaign. Direct mail appeals, reinforcing ad messages, and offering additional detail and persuasion, are coordinated with the ad schedules. Employees are trained to deal with customer inquiries and "coffee shop" discussions. They are briefed on the most critical messages and provided "talking points" to guide their responses. Grassroots door-to-door canvassing and phone banking are used when needed.

The Results

PSB has won 13 of 14 elections, losing only one where voters were 85 percent in favor of takeover before we were involved. Most communities have 60-75 percent support for takeover prior to the campaign. In another six communities, we have persuaded elected officials never to put the issue on the ballot in the first place. PSB won a 1992 Silver Anvil from PRSA for its campaign in Wahoo, Nebraska, naming it the best public affairs program in the nation for service businesses.