Creating Public Education Campaigns
After the landmark win Hawaii court win in the 1990s – followed by an anti-marriage constitutional amendment in the state that took away politically what we were winning legally – marriage organizers learned painfully that there was not just one, but two courts we would have to win before winning the freedom to marry nationwide. In addition to making the case in the court of law, we needed to make the case and win in the court of public opinion. From the get-go, Freedom to Marry invested in developing and deploying public education tactics and models aimed at starting or sustaining conversations about why marriage matters. Sparking millions of everyday conversations between family and loved ones was the key to changing the public’s understanding of what gay relationships and who gay people are.
The goal of public education campaigns was to lay the groundwork for eventual advances and to allow everyone in every state to add to the national momentum that supported those building-block wins.
As much as possible, we worked to find and assist local organizers and partner groups to undertake public education work – and sometimes formal public education campaigns – in their states – even those that did not have an immediate or likely pathway to winning within the 4 corners of the state. The goal was to lay the groundwork for eventual advances in court, legislatures, or at the ballot in the states with the potential, and to allow everyone in every state to add to the national momentum that supported those building-block wins.
Freedom to Marry participated in public education campaigns in a few ways: In some states we launched formal public education campaigns that directly preceded a legislative or ballot campaign. In others, we worked with robust state partners to support their on-the-ground marriage organizing. More than a dozen Southern states were a part of our “Southerners for the Freedom to Marry” regional campaign.
Integral to many of these campaigns was Freedom to Marry’s Why Marriage Matters public education framework for the integral first steps of advancing the conversation. The Why Marriage Matters messaging framework was based on extensive national research and focus groups designed to uncover the most effective case possible to appeal to the “moveable middle” on marriage in 2010 and 2011. This core public education program was packaged into an open-source public education campaign with a continuously updated portal providing sample ads, videos, graphics, and tool kits that brought the new values-based commitment message to life. Over 30 national and state organizations signed on as Why Marriage Matters partners, so instead of re-creating the wheel, every state had access to research-based messages, sample ads, and an approach that was proven effective. Through Why Marriage Matters, Freedom to Marry shared valuable, central resources with state campaign leaders so that they could test and refine the findings in their local context, identify real people in their own communities to serve as messengers, and make the messages their own.
Here’s a look at each type of public education campaign with whichFreedom to Marry engaged:
Public Education Coalitions: Formal public education coalitions – campaigns that were branded with full-time staff, official arrangements, and Memoranda of Understanding binding national and state partner organizations – were typically launched a year or more before an anticipated vote, court case, or legislative campaign. The goal with each was to lay a solid foundation of public support, using earned media story placement, enlistment of ‘grasstops’ leaders to serve as messengers, launching field-based conversation campaigns, and in some cases placing paid media. Examples of these centrally built, locally led campaigns include Oregon Unites for Marriage, Why Marriage Matters Ohio, and Why Marriage Matters Arizona. In the initial year or two of each campaign, the work was not focused explicitly on directing support to a legislative, ballot, or litigation effort. Rather, the goal was to build public support and have a campaign entity in place ready to “turn out” and push forward once the more aggressive organizing was necessary.
Supporting Marriage Work of State Groups: In the final two years of Freedom to Marry, it was clear that public education on marriage was necessary and desired in many states working to win court cases seeking marriage for same-sex couples. Freedom to Marry identified several of these states with independent capacity and generally stable leadership to partner with on public education work designed to fuel the national momentum for marriage. In these states – Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Alabama – Freedom to Marry directly embedded with the state leadership, sometimes hiring a staffer directly with the state organizations to focus solely on marriage work. Through these organizers, Freedom to Marry was able to plug into the local community and provide the additional capacity necessary for sparking broad conversations on marriage across the state. And the work our partnerships delivered at the state level also gave us content and momentum to add to the national narrative we were driving as we headed toward the federal Circuit Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
Southerners for the Freedom to Marry: In early 2013, Freedom to Marry launched Southerners for the Freedom to Marry, bringing together 14 state organizations in Southern states working on marriage for same-sex couples as well as our partners at the Campaign for Southern Equality, a grassroots organizing team we supported. The mission was twofold: Develop relationships with state organizations to support their local marriage organizing and arm them with the resources they need, and amplify on a national level stories of Southerners calling for the freedom to marry nationwide. Southerners for the Freedom to Marry contributed to our twin core narratives (“America is ready” for a national resolution at the U.S. Supreme Court, and It’s time,” because delay was harming those still left behind). The stories we generated also helped improve the local climate for same-sex couples and their families while enhancing opportunities to advance legal protections at the state and local levels. The South had a unique and important role in laying the groundwork for a national Supreme Court ruling. Changing attitudes on marriage in the South was a bellwether for the Supreme Court – and the rest of America. Demonstrating the surprising growth in support for the freedom to marry in the South helped to overcome what was potentially the most challenging barrier to national resolution, and doing so through a regional rather than state-by-state effort helped to satisfy both objectives.
Key Lessons Learned
- Start the conversation by focusing on values and emotions: With a cause that is as deeply significant to so many as marriage, tapping into people's fundamental values in making the case is essential. One of the mistakes some marriage campaigns made along the way was in focusing on messages that polled well but didn’t have emotional resonance. Freedom to Marry learned that showing non-gay people in America why same-sex couples want to marry – the same reasons they wanted to marry – was necessary to sway opinions. Tapping into those values was a powerful antidote to the fear-mongering that our opponents employed (arguments that the freedom to marry would harm children, for example) and helped spark smart, fair conversations about the freedom to marry.
- Continue the conversation by meeting people where they are: To make lasting change in America, it's crucial to make the case – and give time – to people who are conflicted about your cause. On marriage, the movement knew that many people grew up in a society where they were taught that marriage was between a man and a woman, and in a faith tradition where they were taught that homosexuality was wrong. Many good people were conflicted, and so marriage organizers asked them to begin a journey toward acceptance, challenging some of their deep understandings about marriage, family, and religion. That required engaging with them, leaving no question unanswered, and tackling their concerns head-on. To get them to yes, people were encouraged to open their minds and hearts, listen, question, and reconsider. That meant starting early and staying with it, making the case in multiple ways. It also meant respecting and being open to the questions that voters asked. A shift like that is much less likely to happen if people are written off or referred to as bigots or bad people.
- Build relationships with local and national groups: As with any movement, there were many LGBT groups that took up the fight to win marriage concurrent with Freedom to Marry efforts. We knew that it was crucial to work together and build on existing relationships and knowledge rather than competing. Our public education efforts gave Freedom to Marry the ability to build deep, ongoing partnerships with key organizations. For example, through Southerners for the Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Marry bonded with the Campaign for Southern Equality and local state groups, which provided a critical level of grassroots engagement in Mississippi, Alabama, and across multiple states in the South. The Campaign for Southern Equality hosted Town Hall meetings with Freedom to Marry – in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama – to engage in conversations with local advocates, shine a spotlight on the unique elements of each state, and build capacity and outreach in states without active, formal campaigns.
- Build regional efforts: As key legal cases moved forward, Freedom to Marry mounted other regional efforts that provided an essential organizing lens. In the spring of 2014, two court cases were headed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit – cases out of Utah and Oklahoma. If the 10th Circuit ruled in favor of the freedom to marry, and the ruling took effect, it would impact every state in the circuit – including Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas. To communicate this large impact, Freedom to Marry worked with state partners to develop “Wyoming Unites for Marriage” and “Why Marriage Matters Colorado,” which amplified local support for marriage and underlined that the entire circuit – including Wyoming and Colorado – were ready for the freedom to marry. Freedom to Marry produced and funded a TV ad featuring Former U.S. Sentaor and Republican stalwart Alan Simpson, who hailed from Wyoming, expressing his support for the freedom to marry. Earned media efforts centered on each of the 10th Circuit states. And organizers worked to assemble signers for amici briefs to bolster the case for the freedom to marry to the 10th Circuit judges.
- Hone in on specific communities: With public education efforts, there’s not a one-size-fits-all model. Different states need to hear from different constituent groups, and that’s something the marriage movement kept in mind while working in each state. In Georgia, for example, Freedom to Marry funded the work of an organizer with Georgia Equality solely devoted to organizing around the faith community, building a robust list of people of faith and faith leaders who were supportive. In Wyoming, the work was more focused on conservatives and Republicans, and so Wyoming Unites for Marriage identified top conservative voices to recruit others to speak out for marriage and then publish those names and statements online and in local newspaper ads.
- Create a communications drumbeat: To make your campaign count, you have to make sure that it’s regularly featured in the media. While public education campaigns don’t have to set the bar quite as high as a legislative or electoral campaign, campaigns should focus whenever possible on rolling out news or announcements every few days – a key endorsement, a new poll, success in the field work – to newspapers, television stations, and social media followers across the state.
- Digital and grassroots coordination was critical: Freedom to Marry’s Digital Team provided regular leads to assist field organizers in public education campaigns. The digital team would recruit online signers, such as grassroots Republicans, small business owners, or couples who wanted to marry. Online forms could collect a few sentences of an individual’s story as well as photos of their families. These online-generated lists provided key leads for organizers to follow up on.