The SPN Communications Excellence Awards recognize and encourage outstanding achievements in marketing, communications, and media across the state think tank Network. Winners will receive a grant to pursue future projects, as well as a trophy to honor their effort and results.
SPN is proud to highlight these finalists and to share their success with the Network. All nominees will be highlighted on SPN’s website and channels to celebrate their success and share strategies across the Network.
The award winners will be determined via votes from state think tank communications staff and CEOs.
Winners will be announced at SPN’s 28th Annual Meeting.
Effective marketing campaigns gain traction with their targeted audiences. They drive the consumers of their content to take action and position the organization for even greater success. This award recognizes the creativity of such marketing campaigns.
Alabama Policy Institute: #Deadlast Campaign
The Alabama Policy Institute launched the #DeadLast initiative in order to turn elected officials and the public’s attention to Alabama’s recent ranking that revealed that Alabama had the worst performing education system in the nation. API first created a video poking fun at the fact that Alabama is no longer even above Mississippi in its education ranking (as Alabamians often use the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi”). API’s #DeadLast video generated over 280,000 views and over 125,000 clicks. The DeadLast.org website collected 1,000 email addresses through its petition that the organization added to its owned audience. The term ‘dead last’ was also picked up and used in several media stories and made its way into the language that the Governor used when discussing education.
The most immediate action taken alongside API’s #DeadLast campaign – outside of education of the general public and garnering support of the online petition – was supportive work for Amendment 1 on the March 2020 state-wide ballot. (Amendment 1 proposed a change in how the leadership of the state’s education system is elected, and would change these elected positions to appointed ones.) Ultimately, Amendment 1 did not pass. However, the #DeadLast campaign truly has given API a platform from which to work in calling for better education in the state of Alabama.
Civitas Institute: Reopen North Carolina
In April 2020, after weeks of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper having been vague and wavering on his plans for reopening the state economy, Civitas believed something needed to be done. The organization built a campaign and numerous creative executions for advertising on Facebook, primarily focusing on calls-to-action of contacting Gov. Cooper via his Facebook page and lead form petitions to grow its email list.
With $4,400 Civitas was able to earn 14,279 click-throughs to Gov. Cooper’s contact page. And more significantly, with $10,649.09, 21,463 people signed the petition and were added to Civitas’ email list, making it a transformational moment of growth for Civitas. This more than doubled its owned audience size. Civitas’ efforts were not only noticed by the governor, he even pointed to their efforts in a campaign email that said, “The extreme- right launched ads attacking Roy. We need help to fight back.” The weekend after the largest spike of Civitas’ campaign, Gov. Cooper issued reopening plans and guidelines.
Caesar Rodney Institute: Save our Beach View Project
The state of Maryland (Delaware’s neighboring state) didn’t include Delaware in the decision making process when it approved an “Offshore Wind Project” be constructed, which included placing many large wind turbines off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. So CRI determined it needed to educate the public about these plans. It mailed out 35,388 letters to beach property owners in the impacted area. They asked residents whether they were aware of and approved of the wind turbine project. In response, CRI received 1,225 survey responses; 84% against visible turbines. They also raised over $50,000 and increased their email list by over 700 people.
Discussion on the Save Our Beach View Project
Mackinac Center: Michigan’s Arbitrary Lockdown Rules Cartoons
In March of 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Over the course of this state of emergency, the governor thwarted the legislature’s attempts to check her power and released a deluge of executive orders that unilaterally implemented a number of arbitrary restrictions on Michiganders across the state. The Mackinac Center recognized that the best way to convey the ridiculous nature of these restrictions was to illustrate them through a series of cartoons. These graphics were used in a Facebook ad campaign that directed viewers to join the Mackinac Center’s Opportunity Michigan network to engage with others around the state and find a platform for amplifying their concerns.
These cartoons on Facebook had over 100,000 views and prompted over 1,800 new individuals to sign up for Opportunity Michigan in just a few short weeks. Best of all, however, was that shortly after each cartoon depicting an arbitrarily enforced restriction was released, that restriction was (coincidentally?) repealed.
Michigan’s Arbitrary Lockdown Rules in Cartoons
Driving the media narrative around a policy issue means your organization was able to effectively frame the policy debate with media and policy makers. Your talking points, your heroes, and your messaging were omnipresent in print, television, radio, and digital. This award recognizes the power of effectively driving the media narrative.
Illinois Policy Institute: COVID-19 Economic Fallout
Illinois Policy Institute has built its own media arm with extensive reach, but is also building impressive reach into the mainstream media, driving media narratives in Illinois and nationwide. In addition to exposing unfair state government bailouts from COVID pandemic funds, the Institute shared powerful stories of the human cost of the government lockdown and educated the public about the damaging effects of a graduated income tax measure on the November ballot. The Institute quickly became a go-to source for top Chicago, statewide and even national media searching for economic context and relief solutions during this economic downturn. Public discussion evolved from strictly health updates to the real people hurt by state-mandated lockdowns in response to the pandemic. The Illinois Policy Institute made this happen from the top down.
Highlighting the Economic Fallout
Mississippi Center for Public Policy: Police Reform Opinion Editorial
When protests and riots over police brutality broke out across the nation in June 2020, MCPP’s Brett Kittredge quickly researched the issue, then wrote and pitched an opinion editorial with immediate solutions state leaders could implement. Due to his timely, thoughtful response, Brett’s work was cited and quoted by Mississippi’s Office of the State Public Defender in its Recommendations to Improve Relationship between Law Enforcement and the People. Thus proving that op-eds can shift public opinion, persuade political leaders, and have direct impact on policy.
Restoring Accountability and Trust in Law Enforcement
Beacon: Lifting up the Impoverished
Beacon Center research found that Tennessee had accumulated more than $730 million in unspent federal dollars that was supposed to be used to help Tennesseans living in poverty find and sustain employment. Beacon broke the story and received over 200 media mentions, the most the organization has received on any research project to date. More impressive, the report was covered across Tennessee, hitting every major media market. Due to the research findings, and subsequent media coverage, Beacon’s work forced policymakers to pursue pro-job policies to help lift those in poverty off welfare. The media, who was not covering this at all before, dove head first and continued to report on the unspent funds for months to come, all while mentioning Beacon and its research in every single story.
Moving the Media on Welfare Discussions
Washington Policy Center: Governor Inslee’s unscientific COVID dials
During Governor Jay Inslee’s regular press briefings concerning business closures and other measures he deemed necessary to address the COVID-19 pandemic, he asserted his policies were based on science and that reopening the state depended in part on the performance measured by his COVID-19 risk assessment dials. WPC’s Center for the Environment Director Todd Myers began examining and then challenging the assessment dials science. Todd’s work was featured in a front page story in The Olympian, which led to national media coverage in The Wall Street Journal which in turn led to an interview on the “Ingraham Angle” on Fox News. WPC’s work began to have an impact when at the governor’s regular COVID-19 related press conferences, reporters started asking questions based on Todd’s work. Shortly after Todd’s work received this high-level state and then national coverage, WPC’s position became the dominant one, so much so that the Governor abandoned his own risk assessment dials, an implicit acknowledgment that WPC’s narrative made the status-quo unsustainable.
A powerful brand means your organization has a seat at the policy-making table. Citizens look to your organization for information and guidance on important policy issues. Lawmakers and media see you a trusted resource for quality research and information. This award recognizes the influence of a powerful brand boost.
Buckeye Institute: Removing Barriers to Work: Occupational Licensing Reform in Ohio
In just two years, The Buckeye Institute’s comprehensive and tireless efforts to remove barriers to employment resulted in Ohio passing the nation’s best occupational licensing review process. Credible, independent research coupled with emotional storytelling, and influential media coverage, reinforced and boosted Buckeye’s reputation as an effective, principled, and honest partner that isn’t afraid to stand-up to powerful entrenched special interests.
Mackinac Center: The Overton Window
For over two decades, the Overton Window has been used as a model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and influence politics. The concept was originally developed by Joseph P. Overton, who was senior vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy at the time of his death in 2003. Mackinac updated its website and expanded Overton Window resources to better educate the public and connect its brand to this culturally significant concept, which resulted in a significant boost to Mackinac’s brand, and doubling the organization’s website traffic.
Commonwealth Foundation: From a Failing School to the National Stage: CF and Myles Slade-Bowers
After Commonwealth Foundation’s high school intern Myles Slade-Bowers accepted an invitation to the White House to tell his story about the benefits of tax credit scholarships in Pennsylvania, President Trump used the organization’s policy research in his 2020 State of the Union address. The Trump administration’s use of Commonwealth’s research firmly establishes its role as national school choice champions and boldly boosted its brand within Pennsylvania and beyond.
Pioneer Institute: Respect My Rights Hotline & Campaign
Pioneer Institute’s Respect My Rights (RMR) initiative is a a web-based “hotline” to empower individuals facing violations of their civil liberties during the COVID pandemic and beyond. The RMR campaign was created with the intention of appealing to new audiences by shifting Pioneer’s brand from a narrow focus on limited government to a more proactive approach on the protection of individual rights. On Pioneer’s social media platforms, the RMR posts have thus far garnered over 285,000 impressions, 3,300 link clicks, and 200 engagements.
Not all marketing is done with millions of dollars. Sometimes it’s the guerrilla marketing on a shoestring budget that can go viral and have outsized influence despite limited resources. This award recognizes organizations that punched above their marketing weight and had big impact with few dollars.
Beacon Center: Keep the Hall Tax Repeal in Effect
Powerful things can happen with a nonexistent budget when legislators try to re-impose a statewide tax in the 11th hour of the legislative session. Stephanie Whitt, Beacon’s EVP, posted a tweet (which explains the $0 budget) saying that delaying the repeal of the Hall Tax would effectively be a tax increase. Legislators were the key audience, and boy, did Beacon reach them. Within one hour of the tweet, lawmakers were reaching out to Beacon’s CEO to talk. The Tennessee House pulled the delay of the tax repeal from their budget negotiations with the Senate. And the Tennessee Journal noted Beacon’s role in all of it: $0 and 41 words later.
The Tweet Heard ‘Round the Legislature
Center for the American Experiment: Let Minnesota Golf!
Several weeks into the governor’s mandatory stay-home executive order, Minnesotans were becoming angry and frustrated with the shutdown. Golfers were especially upset by the indiscriminate closure of golf courses, a sport obviously conducive to social distancing. The Center of the American Experiment gave them a voice by running Facebook ads that linked to a landing page where they were able to send emails to the governor and local legislators demanding that golf courses reopen. State leaders quickly received 2,610 emails at a total cost of just $750, and the executive order was changed just seven days after the campaign began.
Libertas Institute: The Office Parody to Teach about Tangible Tax Problems
In this clever parody video, Libertas employees acted as The Office employees, to talk about an unfair, annual business tax that companies have to pay on their existing property. The video helped raise awareness about the issue among legislators, lobbyists, and activists, helping Libertas successfully pursue legislative reform this session to ease the burden of this tax on business owners. Dozens of legislators and lobbyists told Libertas staff during the session how much they enjoyed the video and that they didn’t realize the tangible tax was as invasive as it was. No budget was spent other than staff time. Libertas’ Nichelle Aiden wrote, directed, edited, acted, and produced the entire video herself.
Pelican Institute: Faces of the Shutdown
Following Governor John Bel Edwards’ decision to shut down the state’s economy in the spring of 2020, the Pelican Institute traveled across Louisiana to collect video stories of industries, entrepreneurs, and workers impacted by the decision. After filming several stories, the organization began producing a series titled “Faces of the Shutdown.” The budget for the project was $300. To date, the four “Faces of the Shutdown” stories have been viewed more than 51,000 times on Facebook.
Storytelling is the most fundamental element of communication. In marketing, storytelling can inform and persuade. An organization that tells powerful stories will boost its brand, spread the message of policy impact, and change public sentiment. This award recognizes the storytelling that truly impacted an organization’s brand image and policy impact.
Commonwealth Foundation: Fighting Homelessness during COVID-19
Imagine being immunocompromised because of cancer treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also facing homelessness after your governor imposed an ill-conceived housing construction ban during a public health crisis. This is the unfortunate story of Tom Slattery shared through media outlets by Commonwealth Foundation. They successfully shifted legislators away from the blind acceptance of haphazard and harmful restrictions during the early days of the pandemic. By highlighting the real harms to actual people through powerful storytelling, Commonwealth Foundation was able to re-instill prudence in decision making and ensure that Mr. Slattery’s home was constructed in time for him to avoid dangerous health consequences.
Pennsylvania Construction Shutdown Puts the Elderly at Risk?
Idaho Freedom Foundation: Stay Home Stories
As a result of stay at home orders that seemingly arbitrarily decided who was and was not essential, countless Idahoans had their very livelihoods declared non-essential. To show the very human cost of government orders that pick and choose the winners and losers of society, Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) interviewed and published 14 stories of Idahoans whose businesses and livelihoods were devastated. By focusing this powerful storytelling on people outside of their usual audience, IFF positioned themselves as champions of the people and guardians of liberty, meanwhile doubling their usual growth in email and social media audience members.
Illinois Policy Institute: A voice for the voiceless: Exposing the human cost of Illinois’ lockdown with remote photojournalism
Embracing the value of virtual connection, Illinois Policy Institute (IPI) conducted several virtual interviews with residents of Illinois whose businesses were affected by the COVID-19 closures. Emphasizing the human impacts and complementing these with striking photojournalism, IPI put a human face on the economic consequences. By targeting their powerful storytelling towards existing media and encouraging them to cover the economic consequences as well as the health risks, IPI helped shift the narrative to include those who had been forgotten in the race to close the country.
Illinois Policy Institute: Your Story
Palmetto Promise Institute: Limitless Lila
School choice is often the only route to successful education for children with special needs. But, it’s rare that lawmakers even consider the plight of many children whose needs aren’t met by overburdened public schools. So that’s what made the story of Lila, a vivacious eight-year-old that wanted a better education, was so powerful for shifting the discussion in South Carolina around school choice. Through a longstanding partnership with Lila’s parents and the infrastructure built up over years of work, Palmetto Promise Institute was able to develop a strong video for highlighting children like Lila and their need for expanded choice. By targeting this powerful storytelling towards lawmakers through geotagging, they were able to ensure that the people who most needed to hear the story did, leading to serious momentum behind expanded school choice through ESAs in South Carolina.
No matter how just your cause, or how impeccable your research, none of what you say matters if it’s to an empty room. Only slightly more useful is talking to an echo chamber of the same audience again and again. After pouring through the nominations from our exceptional Network, it was clear a new category of award was needed for the folks who expanded the reach of their message to achieve new heights and build new coalitions. This award recognizes the organizations whose efforts led to expanded audiences and increased capacity and infrastructure for educating and mobilizing their states.
Beacon Center of Tennessee: Giving Beacon a Jump Start
When they looked at themselves in the mirror, Beacon Center saw an organization with many intellectual giants on staff and a strong reputation as a credible academic organization. They also saw a pretty boring group to be around. In order to avoid missing out on many audiences that aren’t attracted to “stuffy research papers,” they sought to bring their staff’s diverse personalities, humor, and general likeability into the mix. To do this, Beacon started the “Decaf” podcast, and the “Over-Caffeinated” video series, both of which were targeted at younger audiences outside of their usual scope. Through these efforts, Beacon Center expanded their audience and diversified their support.
Commonwealth Foundation: Marketing the Taxpayer Protection Act to Influence Voters, Media, and Lawmakers
In times of great division, bipartisan policies are hard to come by. Still, Commonwealth Foundation’s successful marketing effort for the Taxpayer Protection Act (TPA) attracted fiscal conservatives from both sides of the aisle in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. To craft a winning message, Commonwealth analyzed legislators’ records to find those most “on the fence”—then targeted education efforts towards their districts, putting pressure on legislators as the TPA vote approached. Simultaneously, they worked with media outlets to highlight the bipartisan nature of the reforms, inspiring a Democratic lawmaker to publish an opinion piece on his need to work across the aisle and make fiscal responsibility happen. By highlighting shared values in key areas, Commonwealth expanded their audience and found a channel for cooperation between the parties in their state.
Mississippi Center for Public Policy: Saving Goat Milk in Mississippi
Sometimes, liberty is as simple as drinking a glass of milk. But in Mississippi, there was a quiet attempt to ban a provision of Mississippi’s law that allowed folks to buy raw goat milk straight from a farm. Even though the Mississippi Center had not planned anything around this topic, when they saw this baseless infringement on personal liberty, as well as a regulation that would stymie a rapidly growing industry, they knew they had to act. With minimal preparation the Center flew into action to publicize this transgression. Though they figured only goat farmers and raw-milk-enthusiasts would be particularly incensed, the infringement struck a chord with the people of Mississippi. The Center was able to generate a massive email and social media campaign that was almost completely organic – since the center doesn’t have a regular “contact your legislator” function on their website or other materials – and soon legislators were bombarded with social media posts and emails railing against this silly ban. The bill died soon after in committee. The Center expanded their audience, protected an industry, and ensured that Americans could still have some milk if they wanted, all in about three weeks.
Saving Goat Milk in Mississippi
Washington Policy Center: WPC en Español
The best way to defend against an attack is to plan for it in advance, which is what has motivated the intense effort of Washington Policy Center (WPC) to expand its audience. In spite of an already respected brand in their state, WPC has sought to ensure that they always have the ability to directly respond to detractors. To do this, WPC has made sure that no audience has barriers like language between them and hearing directly from the center. Washington Policy Center took their existing content, including animated videos, and translated them to Spanish to ensure that audiences primarily tapped by statist-progressives are able to hear the messages of the free market. This expanding of their audience will provide the Center with a new outlet for defending their brand directly to the people of Washington they mean to help.