State Policy Network
Communications case study: Through storytelling, Commonwealth Foundation inspires legislative action to reopen Pennsylvania’s economy

Tom Slattery and his wife were looking forward to moving into their new home in Silver Spring, a community in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania for people 55 years and older. Tom’s wife had finished her cancer treatment, and the couple was excited for a fresh start. That optimism vanished when the coronavirus pandemic started to spread.

In April, the Pennsylvania Governor shut down residential construction across the state, preventing the Slatterys’ new home from being finished. Tom and his wife faced homelessness.

To help the Slatterys and thousands of other families like them, the Commonwealth Foundation launched a campaign to reverse the governor’s shutdown order.

SPN: Tell us about who you reached to make a difference.

Commonwealth: Our main audience was lawmakers and legislative leaders who needed the moral authority and sense of urgency to quickly push back on some of Governor Wolf’s unilateral shutdown policies that were unnecessarily harming Pennsylvanians. When Governor Wolf began issuing orders related to the emergency, legislators were hesitant to take a leading role in the state government’s response to the pandemic. As the pain caused by Wolf’s orders started to become clear, we knew we had to find a way to inspire legislators to protect Pennsylvania’s economy—even while polling showed Wolf remained popular.

Our knowledge from previous policy efforts proved that inspiring the Legislature to act would convince him to change his policies, even if he did so reluctantly. We also told this story to Pennsylvanians who were unaware of the unseen consequences of government shutting down major parts of the economy, which included leaving elderly citizens vulnerable to homelessness and to the virus.

SPN: How did you find the story and share it with your audience?  

Commonwealth: We found this story through supporters of ours in the construction industry. They connected us with some of their clients for whom the timing of Governor Wolf’s construction shutdown could not have been worse. We told stories of others in situations similar to the Slatterys’ in follow-up pieces. Our primary storytelling avenue was op-eds published in some of Pennsylvania’s largest news outlets and at the national level in the Washington Examiner. We leveraged these placements with Facebook advertising and by distributing the pieces directly to lawmakers anxious for material to support related legislation.

SPN: How did your storytelling effort influence the policy discussion? How did it boost your brand?

Commonwealth: Our telling of the Slatterys’ story inspired lawmakers to stop passively accepting Governor Wolf’s haphazard solutions to the pandemic and to insist on offering their own alternatives. With real-world examples of economic suffering, lawmakers began passing bill after bill to safely reopen certain business sectors. Specifically, lawmakers passed SB 613, which would have replaced Governor Wolf’s arbitrary list of “nonessential” businesses with nationally recognized standards from the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. This would have allowed residential construction to resume had Governor Wolf not vetoed the bill.

Lawmakers refused to back down and passed HB 2400, which would have reopened construction work, and three additional bills to reopen other parts of the economy.

Though Wolf vetoed each bill that reached his desk, he quickly caved to lawmakers’ pressure and enacted many of these bills’ measures just days after vetoing them. Indeed, Wolf committed to reopening construction work in May—in time for the Slatterys to complete their new home and avoid the severe health risks they would have otherwise faced.

For their work to protect the lives and livelihoods of Pennsylvanians, the Commonwealth Foundation was a winner of SPN’s Communications Excellence Awards in the Powerful Storytelling Award category.

Categories: Policy Solutions
Organization: State Policy Network