Storytelling is crucial to sharing and understanding the human experience. It helps us to see past our own limited perspective and blind spots. That’s why Illinois Policy Institute focused on storytelling to shed light on the toll the pandemic-driven economic shutdown was having on average Illinoisans.
As Illinois fought to stem the tide of COVID-19, Illinois Policy Institute (IPI) quickly realized that attempts to protect safety were failing to take economic consequences into account. To protect small business owners from the strictest coronavirus lockdown in the country, IPI combined real-time analysis on jobs numbers and economic indicators with dozens of real stories of Illinois “heroes” whose voices highlighted the effects of the coronavirus lockdown on the people of Illinois.
IPI focused their efforts on two key audiences, the first of which was existing legacy media. IPI wanted to convince them to cover the economic cost of the lockdown on equal footing with the public health consequences of the pandemic. Illinois Policy was the first team in the state to report on the human cost of the lockdown. Once they did, mainstream media outlets followed suit. IPI found that one out of four Illinoisans were out of work, and that the real-time unemployment rate was more than 20 percent. Due to this and other forgone economic activity, the state was losing over $183 million dollars a day. Since April, the Institute has been featured in the media 579 times as a leading expert on the economic consequences of the lockdown. The second audience was IPI’s target demographic for building their online community generally in Illinois—Gen X homeowners and local news consumers. Gen X homeowners’ shaky financial position was helping them see the consequences of poorly thought out economic shutdowns.
In addition to sharing data and facts, IPI also gave a voice to the small business owners and unemployed workers who have been ignored by the state. To start, IPI shared the story of Kristan Vaughan.
Kristan runs seven Irish pubs through her company, Vaughan Hospitality Group. Kristan’s business was under threat due to the closures, and her employees were in limbo about whether they still had jobs. Without clear guidance from the government on how long closures would last, and with unclear terms on potential loans, Kristan had to genuinely consider bankruptcy and whether it would be better to fire her employees so they could at least get unemployment benefits.
Two months after IPI featured Kirstan’s story on their website, The Wall Street Journal reached out to IPI, complementing them on their storytelling work and asking to be connected with some of the featured business owners. The Wall Street Journal then wrote a feature piece on Kristan and the difficulties she and so many other small businesses were facing.
Since the start of the lockdown, IPI has produced more than 40 profiles of Illinoisans across the state, primarily small business owners who have been hurt by the shutdown order.
With powerful storytelling and a well-developed media infrastructure to lean on, the Institute helped shift the narrative in the state. Much more focus was now on the economic toll of the coronavirus. IPI’s content highlighting the coronavirus fallout also led to website traffic records. Nearly 1.5 million users clocked 4.3 million pageviews on IPI’s site in May, an average of nearly 140,000 pageviews per day. IPI was able to convert website visitors and social media followers to members of their owned audience, which now totals 1.1 million individuals across the state. All of this, without spending a dime beyond what had been previously budgeted and planned. When the content is that good, it’s easy to drive traffic.
IPI was then able to continue to educate this audience on how they can promote good policy in Springfield. That was especially needed on May 15, 2020, when the Illinois Governor filed a new executive order that charges business owners who violate the stay-at-home order with a Class A misdemeanor, resulting in a maximum penalty fine of $2,500 and up to one year in prison.
IPI worked with a member of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), a legislative committee with the power to repeal the governor’s order. IPI’s members sent 20,062 unique emails to the 12 members of JCAR. IPI’s strategy worked: Before a scheduled hearing on the order, public health officials repealed the rule, indicating the governor did not have the votes from JCAR to keep the order in place.
But the Illinois Governor didn’t give up. After being forced to withdraw his executive order, the governor announced his intentions to codify his rule through the full House and Senate. IPI’s community sent 11,000 emails to 13 lawmakers most likely to vote “no” on the bill, urging those lawmakers to stand up to the governor. IPI’s strategy was successful yet again, and the governor finally conceded. Lack of legislative approval left the governor exposed to lawsuits and forced him to more rapidly reopen the state’s economy.
For their success in exposing the human cost of Illinois’ lockdown and defeating an effort to criminalize small business owners, Illinois Policy Institute is a 2020 Bob Williams Award finalist for Best Issue Campaign and a Communications Excellence Awards Finalist for Driving the Media Narrative Award.