Story #21: Bond Messaging in the Time of COVID

Passing a facilities bond in the middle of the COVID pandemic wasn't easy for any school district. And for Los Angeles Unified, seeking a whopping seven billion dollar bond, it really took painstaking messaging and careful targeting to deliver the right message to the right people. See how CliffordMoss worked with Los Angeles USD (LAUSD) to carefully balance long term facilities needs with the current realities presented by the COVID crisis on the November 2020 ballot. All of this culminated in a BIG WIN for LAUSD with 71% of the community voting YES on RR.

Here are the four tips on messaging (in general and during the pandemic):

1. Stock Photos? Think Again

Pretty and “perfect” photos don’t cut it. Wherever possible use real students, real teachers and real schools. Community members want to see their community reflected in your materials - and they don't want fluff. Don't be afraid to reflect the uniqueness, diversity and grittiness of your district. “Real” imagery adds trust to the relationship between “the ask” (the bond) and your community – conveying a sense that your needs are real and that the money will be spent properly where it is actually needed. 

2. Balance COVID with Long Term

Though we all hope (and to some degree assume) that COVID protocols will not be a long term part of schools - that they won't last forever, the pandemic needs to be acknowledged in your materials. Showing old photos of students in classrooms close together without masks ignores our reality. Community members know that getting back to school will require major changes - from masks, to temperature checks, to new classroom arrangements.  Reflect that reality in your messaging. And while your community may be willing to pay for the facilities needs related to COVID protocols, don't make your bond program all about COVID.  In our polling and focus groups for LA Measure RR - we learned that voters want to help with COVID, but they are perhaps more interested in investments to long-term upgrades. You must pay great attention to striking a balance between showing long term facilities improvements while acknowledging the current realities of COVID.

3. Construction vs. Deteriorating Facilities

While those of us who work with bond measures and school facilities everyday understand the connection between school construction and better educational outcomes for students, it's harder for community members to make those connections.   Skip the pictures of construction workers in hard hats on school sites, skip the pictures of building in progress, focus either on (a) deteriorating facilities (use the most obvious, awful photos you have) or (b) the final product - great facilities creating outstanding education options for kids.  Think about showing the "need" or the "product" not the "process."

4. Best Messengers are from “The Front Lines”

When “talking bond”, community members trust messages from parents, teachers, and local endorsements. In poll after poll, focus group after focus group, voters hammered home that they trusted testimonials from “the front lines" (teachers, parents, even students) more than they trusted administrators, elected officials or other talking heads. When showing images from best messengers, acknowledge current COVID realities (with masks, etc.), while balancing messages about long-term facilities needs.

In a nutshell

Los Angeles Unified's Measure RR was one of the few school bonds this cycle to include COVID language in their bond ballot question and lean on it as a message during campaign.  And though the balance was tricky - requiring messages about short-term COVID needs at the same time we talked about long-term upgrades, the chord we struck worked.  LA's seven billion dollar bond won with 71% voter approval rate, the 6th highest approval rate in California.

BONNIE MOSS   (510) 757-9023   [email protected]

TOM CLIFFORD   (510) 847-7155   [email protected]

AMANDA CLIFFORD   (415) 244-5990   [email protected]

LAURA CROTTY   (408) 839-5556   [email protected]