Vol. 37, No. 3

New media, old media, no media: Bars use a mix of methods to reach voters

by Robert J. Derocher

You might say that the Iowa State Bar Association pulled out all the stops last fall in its effort to support a controversial state Supreme Court justice in a retention election.

To be more precise, a handful of bar members and staff and its makeshift media truck made 19 stops in five days all across Iowa. It was all part of an old-fashioned campaign led by the ISBA to counter attempts to oust a state Supreme Court justice for one vote that authorized same-sex marriage in the state.

“It was a hellacious week, but it was a rewarding week,” says ISBA Communications Director Steve Boeckman. “While I think we made significant strides in correcting the misinformation being promulgated by the anti-judge folks, the most significant accomplishment was meeting personally with about three dozen media outlets around the state. The public relations value from that is immeasurable.”

To be sure, Boeckman and other bar communicators say they’re growing their public and governmental relations outreach efforts with newer social media and technological tools. Bar efforts in the 2012 elections season bore out that strategy, they say. Still, many say, old-fashioned personal contact continues to be a key part of how they can stay in tune with members, legislators and the public.

In Iowa, Boeckman and ISBA leaders such as President Cindy Moser knew they would have to get involved early in order to avoid a repeat of 2010, when many felt that bar acted “too little, too late” to defend three justices who were defeated in retention elections, Moser says. A consultant was hired to help the bar develop a website, bolster its presence on social media, and grow the bar’s overall presence online via search engine optimization—a foreign concept to a group that hasn’t completely converted to e-mail, Moser says.

Thanks to the newly learned SEO strategies, she says, “When somebody went to type [the leading retention opponent’s name] into Google, the first thing that popped up was our website.”

Dramatic changes in outreach tools

Indeed, websites and a robust Internet presence were central pieces of bar efforts to reach voters and other constituencies in the 2012 election season. Associations in Iowa, Ohio, and Missouri not only put up election-related content on their own websites, but they also created websites dedicated exclusively to the issues with names such as themissouriplan.com (Missouri), judicialfacts.info (Iowa) and protectjusticeohio.com (Ohio—a temporary site that’s been taken down).

The Ohio State Bar Association also hired a website consultant, while The Missouri Bar’s media relations director, Farrah Fite, developed a comprehensive Internet plan that focused on websites and social media such as Facebook.

“The websites and social media are really the best ways to reach younger attorneys,” says Missouri Bar President Patrick Starke. “It was a very important part of our strategy.”

For veteran bar leaders such as Bill Weisenberg, the OSBA’s assistant executive director for public affairs, the Internet/Facebook campaign represented “a dramatic change” from previous bar involvement in campaigns, which focused heavily on television, radio, and newspaper advertising and advocacy spots. “This appeals to a new generation of lawyers,” he says. “And we did it cheaply and efficiently.”

New strategies help unified bar toe the line

In New Hampshire, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given the state legislature more control over state court administration was opposed by the New Hampshire Bar Association. But because the bar is unified, its opposition was limited by Keller rules, says NHBA Communications Director Dan Wise.

That’s where the bar’s website came in. Through the website, the bar was able to provide links for members to create lawn signs, literature, and other tools that they could then use to oppose the amendment. Wise and other bar leaders also posted links on their Facebook pages, asking them to share the page with other bar members via Facebook.

“It really was helpful to put tools up for bar members so they could do their own advocacy,” Wise says. “Many members said they appreciated the effort.”

The proposed amendment failed by a 51-49 margin—well below the 60 percent needed for approval.

In an attempt to stay better tuned in to legislative issues, the NHBA has also enhanced its technological capabilities by implementing a software program that closely tracks proposed legislation on a near real-time basis. That’s important, Wise says, for a state with more than 400 legislators.

“It’s cutting down on the amount of time we spend researching and photocopying,” he notes. “It’s great to tell members, ‘If you want to know what the legislature is doing, check our website and you’ll see.’”

Old methods still vital

While bar leaders and communications directors praise technological advances and the role that technology can play in getting out a bar’s messages and legislative positions, they also say it’s still a secondary role in how bars do such business.

“I spent a couple of hours each night in the motel room contacting media at the stops for the next day, and responding to inquiries from media we met that day,” Boeckman says about the ISBA statewide tour.

“What’s the most effective way in communicating?” Starke asks. “Calling somebody or walking up to them and saying, ‘Can I talk to you?’”