Comcast and its allies spent $300,000 to unleash every trick and tactic in the campaign playbook to try to kill a measure that gives Longmont, CO citizens and businesses the right to pick their own best broadband solutions. Measure 2A supporters spent $5,000, if that.
Yea though we walk through the valley in the shadow of Comcast’s desire to annihilate our communities’ right to choose our best broadband solutions, we hold our fear in check and engage the foe because we believe it is possible for the underdog to win.
I made that up last night as I headed out to prep one of my soccer teams for our biggest game of the season. I was feeling pumped after receiving the news that Longmont, CO’s Measure 2A was on its way to victory. The underdog had stood tall in the face of a huge corporation’s relentless efforts to buy a local election rather than compete in the free market. However, despite being outspent 60 to 1, Measure 2A won with 60% of the vote.
There are some valuable lessons for other communities to learn from Longmont’s duel with a corporate giant hell-bent on leveling all opposition in its path – and win. Some communities that have broadband dreams of their own, particularly those in Colorado, have watched the battle to gauge how things might turn out in their particular towns and counties. These elections are no walk in the park, but as we see, they are winnable.
Believe in the rightness of your cause
When all the candidates for local offices come out unanimously in favor of the same measure, regardless of political affiliation, then you get a pretty good sense that people believe in the rightness of community broadband. As Comcast rolled out seemingly endless slick mailers, robo-calls and full-page ads, broadband advocates kept fighting until the last vote was cast. There was definitely a feeling that the democratic process was being tested in Longmont, and its citizens weren’t about to fail this test.
Cut through the crap
Know who’s funding these efforts to kill pro-community broadband ballot measures, who their allies are and what their real agenda’s are. Generally, it’s pretty simple. The main big incumbent is the usually the puppet master hiding behind the curtain pulling the strings. Some state or regional telco “trade association” is usually the front for the incumbent, the entity of public record that sends out checks and the creator of the astroturf group that pretends to be a local public interest group (Look Before We Leap). Add in a couple of PR firms, some “research experts” and a handful of lawyers, you have the whole of your opposition.
Once you expose this cast of characters and their rabid fixation with killing anything with even the hint of competition to the incumbent, many local folks will get on the pro-community broadband train and will stay for the duration of the campaign. As Longmont proved, this loyalty will hold firm through the worst blizzard of negative marketing.
Educate your neighbors
When Longmont held an election on a similar ballot measure in 2009, a lot of people didn’t fully understand what broadband is, what benefits it delivers and how successful these networks have been in other communities. When the half-truths and outright lies start flooding the environment, the facts are your strongest weapons. Supporters went out of their way to deliver “just the facts, ma’am” at every opportunity.
Use the medium you’re trying to create to level the playing field
Philadelphia, Wilson, NC and now Longmont are among the ranks of communities that have used social networks, blogs, traditional e-mail and other online tools to mobilize constituents quickly to write letters, attend council meetings, show up at events and otherwise stay actively engaged. In a presentation I did last year that I sent over to 2A supporters, I advise setting up a rapid response mechanism for counterattacking opponents’ false claims.
It warmed my heart to see supporters create and distribute a news release within hours of newspapers hitting the street with full-page ads from opponents. Just one of the many examples of the small but nimble home team working in excellent guerrilla marketing mode.
Pull in allies
2A supporters called on my colleagues Jim Baller (Baller Herbst), Chris Mitchell (Institute for Local Self Reliance) and others as well as myself. We open our vaults of knowledge of broadband and political battles across the U.S. so local advocates can be knowledgeable, creative and resourceful during referendum campaigns.
It also helped a lot having Alcatel-Lucent on board as an ally. Even though their financial contribution was small ($3,500), their presence lends credibility to the campaign plus access to good (and free) knowledgebases.
Keep your message simple, honest and powerful
After patiently enduring weeks of four-color glossy brochures dumped in every mailbox that attempted to scare voters, one Longmont resident saved up his pennies and ran the following ad on the local newspaper’s front page in the last couple days of the election. It summed up community sentiment quite nicely.
Of course there are additional lessons. But I’m not going to give away all the inside secrets. There are many more battles to fight.