5 Things to Do Now to Prepare for a Successful Referendum

(Note: the following is the first in a series of posts written for the Minnesota Association of School Administrators website. These posts are not meant to be an all-inclusive guide for school district leadership, but rather offer suggestions and guidance on school district referendum communication-related issues. All opinions expressed are my own.)

If you are one of the more than 132 Minnesota school districts going out for levy or bond referendums this fall, you’ve probably already done your research and planning, and are knee-deep into the execution of your communications plan. But if not, don’t worry: you still have time—just not a lot of it.

To help you along, here are five things you should be doing now to prepare for your referendum:

1. Get an idea of how your community is feeling.

It is extremely important that district leadership have a good idea of their communities’ attitude towards a referendum. Is there strong support or just a moderate level?  Is there opposition or ambivalence? Do community members understand why you are asking them for their support?

Several options exist for gathering this essential research:

  • Professional research firms can create and execute scientific random sample surveys, but these can be cost prohibitive for smaller districts.
  • Another option is to hold several focus groups / group interviews and ask questions about the issue. Whether these groups are professionally facilitated or lead by district employees or community volunteers, it is important that they include a wide variety of stakeholders: parents, non-parents, seniors, elected officials, business leaders and employees just to name a few.
  • The least effective — but still useful — method of research is what I call RBWA: research by walking around. If you can’t pull together a formal focus group, try to gather information from simply talking to community members. Again, try to talk to as wide a group of community members as possible.

2.  Select a leadership strategy.

For planning purposes, it’s important to determine early on if the effort will be administration or community led. While both can be effective, the research gathered above can help you determine which approach will be the best fit for your community for this year’s referendum.

3. Develop a communications plan.

One your strategy is set, you can develop your communications plan. While communications plans can vary in size, detail and format, the best plans include the following components:

  • Goals and objectives. Obviously the goal is to ensure that stakeholders have enough information to support (and pass) the referendum. But the way to achieve that goal to identify and implement measurable objectives into your plan.
  • Audience and stakeholder identification. Audiences are the ones who will help you meet goals and objectives, so they are the groups that you will gear your messaging towards (see next point).  As the direct recipients of district-related messages, your audience’s demographics, their concerns, likes and dislikes, and how they get information will determine what communication strategy to use. Stakeholders represent groups with a vested interest in the referendum. These groups often include key influencers who are not district residents but whose support can be critical to a successful referendum effort. They may include elected officials / policy makers, business leaders, and some district staff.  When identifying members of both groups, be as specific as possible (i.e. not just “parents,” but parents of pre-schoolers, parents of elementary students, etc.).
  • Key messages. Key messages are the core message(s) you want your target audiences to hear and remember. They should be included in all of your referendum communications. Key messages create meaning and context for the issue and should answer the “who, what, where and whys” of your referendum efforts. As tempting as it might be to address all of the issues within your district, try to keep your messages referendum-specific and limited to no more than five.
  • Communications strategy. As mentioned above, your audience and stakeholders’ preferences will drive much of the strategy. Strategies could include electronic communication, print communication, earned media or outreach and events.
  • Implementation timeline. A timeline can be created as an Excel worksheet. It should include what needs to be done when, which audiences/stakeholder group it targets and who owns the task.
  • Evaluation. Chances are good that either you – or future district leadership – will hold another referendum. Keeping notes as to what worked, what didn’t and why can be very helpful to future efforts.

4.  Align with a “Vote Yes” community group.

While your mission may be limited to informing the community about the referendum, partnering with a group who can advocate for its passage can lead to powerful and successful outcomes.

5. Prepare for opposition.

Whether it’s a few community members acting independently or a full-blown, organized and well-funded group, chances are good there will be opposition to your district’s referendum. Rather than be reactive, it’s best to determine how you’ll respond to criticisms, exaggerations and outright lies. (MASA’s Rapid Referendum Response booklet has lots of good information on this topic.) However, as you contemplate how you’ll respond, remember while that chances are good that you won’t win over everyone’s vote, every interaction with a community member brings the opportunity to win respect and goodwill.

Finally, consider attending the MinnSPRA referendum communications workshop on September 9. The date of this seminar marks eight weeks to Election Day and this nuts-and-bolts workshop will provide useful information and practical tools for the closing weeks of your referendum information campaigns. Visit www.minnspra.org for more information and to register.

Next week: A closer look at communication strategies.

About robin

Robin Smothers, APR, is the driving force behind the public relations firm, RMSPR. Robin’s practice focuses on community initiatives, particularly education. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, Robin draws from more than 20 years of experience to develop award-winning public relations, communications and community engagement programs. Prior to founding RMSPR in 1999, Robin worked in agency, non-profit and corporate settings. Robin holds a M.P.A. in Community Engagement, a Certificate in Public Participation from the International Association of Public Participation, and a Certificate in Business Communication from the University of St. Thomas. She is past president of the Minnesota School Public Relations Association and past president of the Association for Women in Communication, Twin Cities chapter. Robin is a frequent author, speaker and presenter on topics such as PR2.0, community engagement and public relations. Contact Robin at robin@rmspr.com.

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