When Your Client Works Against You

April 20, 2010

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com. To view the original, go to http://bit.ly/9pe5Lz.

I hate it when the facts get in the way of a good hypothesis.

I was all set to write a post about how tough it is to market a product when your client is urging people not to buy it.

The product I’m referring to is the U.S. Census, which is being publicized and promoted for the federal government by Weber Shandwick, the Bloomington PR firm of which about half of Fast Horse’s staff are alumni.

And the client I’m referring to is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Republican from Minnesota’s 6th District – an official of that same federal government, who has spent a good bit of time in the past year suggesting that Americans shouldn’t fully cooperate with the census.

Joined by other conservative luminaries, Bachmann helped spark a movement on the right to boycott the census. Ironically, that movement could backfire by denying federal funds and even congressional representation to conservative areas that wind up undercounted as a result of a boycott.

Well, that’s where my hypothesis fell apart. Because according to several credible sources, there’s little evidence to suggest that a conservative boycott of the census has taken place.

Robert Groves, director of the Census Bureau, said last week that participation to date is on track to match or surpass the results from 2000, when 72 percent of U.S. households mailed back their census forms. The federal government saves about $85 million for each percentage-point increase in participation, because the need for in-person follow-up is lessened.

The Washington Post did its own analysis of census returns and found that counties voting for John McCain in 2008 actually are returning their census forms at slightly higher rates (62.4 percent) than counties that voted for Barack Obama (62.0 percent).

Even Bachmann eventually walked back her rhetoric, voting last month for a congressional “census awareness” resolution urging Americans to participate.

Brooke Worden, the Weber Shandwick vice president who has been leading the firm’s three-year census marketing effort, didn’t want to comment for this item, preferring to leave comments to the Census Bureau.

But I imagine she’s breathing a sigh of relief that her team’s hard work on this constitutionally mandated effort hasn’t been derailed by a bunch of politicians, media figures and cranks hoping to score a few cheap political points with the gullible.