5 lessons in media advocacy from battles with Big Soda

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In the days that have followed Berkeley's history-making passage of the nation's first city tax on soda and other sugary beverages, much has been written about how and why it happened.

Journalists, commentators, political pundits and others have examined and analyzed everything from social media's role in Berkeley's win to criticism over the lack of leadership from San Francisco's mayor and others, which, in part, led to the defeat of a similar measure there.

At BMSG, we focus on analyzing news coverage of health issues including policy measures, such as earlier soda tax proposals in Richmond and El Monte, California, as well as Telluride, Colorado. Our latest analysis of these proposals and the news coverage they received was published today in Critical Public Health.

Since a major role the news media continue to play in a democratic society is setting the agenda for public policy debates, we look at how issues are portrayed or "framed" in news reports, including the selection — or omission — of arguments, messages, images and sources. This helps advocates better understand the public debates around their issue so that they can develop a more strategic media advocacy campaign.

With the historic win in Berkeley fresh in our minds, we took another look at the analyses of the El Monte, Richmond and Telluride proposals we released earlier this year. Some lessons from these policy fights were incorporated into soda tax campaigns in the Berkeley and San Francisco battles. Some were not. We will continue our research of recent and future soda tax proposals and the campaign strategies they employed. In the meantime, here are our reflections based on our prior studies.

Lessons learned:

Embed media advocacy strategy within overall strategy

One key lesson gleaned from our analysis of the debate is the importance of having an overall strategy — the cornerstone of any media advocacy campaign and the first of four planning stages that we refer to as the layers of strategy.

Developing an overall strategy involves defining the problem, developing a realistic and achievable policy objective, identifying who has the power to make the change sought, mobilizing groups to apply pressure, and planning what advocacy actions supporters will take.

From the Richmond and El Monte policy fights, we learned that it was especially important for advocates to embed their media advocacy strategies within a larger advocacy strategy that includes coalition-building across communities. Part of the beverage industry's success in quashing earlier attempts to enact a soda tax were its economic arguments and community support to build opposition to the soda tax measures, which was contingent upon having the right partners in place from early in the campaign.

In Richmond, the lack of early grassroots support allowed industry-funded "community groups" to frame the soda tax proposal as a threat to the local economy, an ineffective solution and regressive, even racist — the latter likely reflecting the industry's efforts to take advantage of existing racial tensions. In El Monte, where city officials talked more about the soda tax raising revenue for the general fund than about improving the health of residents, the industry was able to characterize the tax as a money grab.

By contrast, Berkeley built a diverse coalition early on, which campaign members said was key to its success.

"Without the wisdom we gained from Richmond, there is no way we would have been successful here," Meleah Hall told Berkeleyside, a local online news site. "We knew the tactics of Big Soda ahead of time. We went to the people and warned them: 'They are trying to buy you out. They are trying to buy your vote.' This is Berkeley. We don't do that."

While San Francisco is a much larger city, making diverse coalition-building a bigger challenge, some advocates there bemoaned the lack of widespread grassroots support. This might have helped soda's well-funded opposition campaign virtually drown out the voices and messages of tax advocates who nevertheless made a gallant effort, garnering 55% of the vote (though not the 66% they needed to pass the tax).

Make soda industry spending and influence a part of the debate

Multiple policy battles have revealed a soda industry playbook with unprecedented spending on advertising including TV, billboards and direct mail. In Berkeley, these tactics were seen as an intrusion by the beverage industry into the community's own decision-making and its efforts to create a healthy environment. To be sure, political strategist Larry Tramutola pointed out that the beverage industry undermined itself when it flooded its campaign with so much money: "They had an unlimited checkbook. There was nothing that couldn't be bought," he told Berkeleyside. "The combination of all that turned Berkeley voters off."

Perhaps the most effective tactic in the Berkeley campaign — and a lesson for us at BMSG — was its slogan: Berkeley vs Big Soda. Although we might have been more supportive of a slogan that held up healthy children and families, Berkeley vs Big Soda instantly sets up a David-and-Goliath frame that highlights the overwhelming influence the sugary beverage has. The power of the frame became evident near election day as Berkeley homes were flooded with the onslaught of direct mail that big money can buy. Seen in light of the campaign's frame, it was clear who was for Berkeley and who wasn't.

Know your opposition and anticipate what they will say

With the emergence of an established soda industry playbook, advocates in Berkeley were well prepared to rebut industry claims. In San Francisco, a cohesive response to industry that included diverse community voices as well as city and community leaders was not as loud as it needed to be.

A lesson gleaned from the Telluride campaign was how industry taps into existing community values to build opposition to a tax. In Telluride, the anti-tax campaign reframed the soda tax as an affront to deeply held local values of civil liberty and individualism. As mentioned earlier, industry exploited racial tensions in Richmond. El Monte was characterized as a city desperate to ward off financial bankruptcy. In San Francisco, where soaring housing prices have made national headlines, the soda industry framed the tax as a cost of living issue, calling its anti-tax campaign the "Coalition for an Affordable City." Berkeley residents were told that its tax proposal was "not what it seems" in an effort to confuse voters. Advocates responded with their own values-based message of Berkeley being a community with a long tradition of supporting public health measures, as well as putting people's health before profit.

Use images and other 'story elements' to make your case

In our media advocacy trainings, we discuss how different "story elements" can help advocates illustrate their case. Authentic voices are spokespeople who can have a unique perspective on the problem. One soda tax advocate in Berkeley and a well-respected member of his community spoke about losing his son to diabetes, using his story as a cautionary tale. Media bites are short, memorable sentences or phrases that communicate a core message. Berkeley's aforementioned campaign slogan served double duty as both an effective frame and media bite. Other story elements, like social math — putting statistics and data into interesting and meaningful context — and visuals, were used to a lesser extent.

Write opinion pieces and letters to the editor

From our news coverage analysis of the Telluride soda tax proposal, one key takeaway is the importance of using opinion space. Although this advice is particularly helpful in small towns like Telluride where opinion pieces can make up a large percentage of news coverage about an issue, it was also useful in building support for soda taxes in Berkeley and San Francisco. Although San Francisco's measure ultimately failed, a powerful opinion piece written by University of San Francisco Professor of Medicine Dr. Dean Schillinger, followed by a meeting with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, resulted in an endorsement from the newspaper.

"I was highly skeptical of the proposal to impose a 2-cents-an-ounce tax on sugary beverages. The Yes on E campaign could not have brought in a more compelling witness than Schillinger, who not only walked through the science of the effects of these sugar-laden drinks, he provided firsthand testimony of their effect on his patients," wrote John Diaz, the paper's opinion editor.

We expect more lessons for advocates will be learned in the days ahead as we continue to examine the stories and strategies that led to Berkeley's history-making measure. One lesson is clear: The sugary drinks tide is indeed turning.

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