Community outreach—or, if you prefer, "community engagement"—has become an essential part of any firm's toolbox for issues management and/or public affairs. Public relations professionals must be able to adapt and elevate their community outreach and community relations' efforts to meet the challenges of more sophisticated issues and more diverse audiences.
Beyond diversity that stems from race, age and ethnicity, geography can play a large role in deciding which outreach tactics are most effective, especially when considering the differences between urban and rural communities. And, while there are profound differences between urban and rural outreach campaigns, it's also worth noting that ample similarities exist as well.
So what are the best practices for tailoring outreach efforts to different types of communities, and how might these lessons apply to your public relations/public affairs outreach campaigns?
Working on community outreach projects in rural areas often involves a homogenous, largely Anglo population, but with increasing regularity, rural areas have large minority populations that have moved out of the city seeking a better life. Rural residents tend to be a little more conservative and suspicious of big city folks, especially if those showing up to conduct the outreach look like they're straight off the cover of GQ magazine.
In rural areas, there are town or community councils, and life revolves around community centers. Media tends to be the weekly community paper. But, don't be fooled: Many rural dwellers are Internet savvy and do their homework.
In general, rural folks are suspicious of overly slick PR campaigns, so one-on-one, door-to-door contact, as well as community meetings, should be in your plans.
In a rural area:
Know your community.
Conduct one-on-one meetings; door-to-door contact is usually effective.
Tone down your approach; it's critical the program not project a slick, big city image.
Hire a local liaison; while having a known, friendly face is key, also be sure that the client gets ample face time.
Take it slow and easy; don't barge right in.
Urban areas, generally speaking, are more ethnically diverse, and while there are more people to contact, they can be a challenge to reach. Because of the diversity, they speak numerous languages. For community outreach, messaging is key amid the competition for eyeballs given the information overload that exists. Life's pace is more hectic, congested and stressful; attention spans are shorter because of the nature of urban living.
Also, it's important to factor in the preexisting groups that have set communities. There are NGOs, neighborhood councils, community groups, civic and ethnic organizations. These groups represent key outreach targets.
In an urban area:
Build a team that looks and talks like your audience.
- Make sure staff and consultants understand the community and have worked there before.
- Avoid the complicated or layered messaging approach and focus on direct messages.
- Use the Internet, e-mail and direct mail in tandem.
- Be aware of neighborhood councils and/or homeowners associations (they all have agendas).
Communities Across The Board
Having discussed the differences between campaigning in the two geographies, there are certainly approaches that apply in all areas when it comes to successfully engaging a community. These include:
Do an analysis of your community before you begin.
Know your objectives and your timeframe.
Build in extra time to your schedule; outreach takes more time than you think.
Know who the influentials and opinion leaders are for each community (hint: they aren't just elected officials).
Remember that effective outreach is based on mutual trust.
Avoid stereotyping rural people as rubes and "goobers" and urban folks as sophisticated, slick and urbane.
Listen, listen, listen.
Don't be judgmental.
Leave your ego at home.
Adapt your messages to events on the ground and be flexible.
- The client is the best messenger, so make sure he or she knows the territory.
Keep in mind that audiences, whether urban or rural, can be unified at the click of a mouse. They will also ultimately want to know, "What's in it for us?" And, most importantly, communities won't do anything until a layer of trust is created on an issue. PRN
Hal Dash is president of Cerrell Associates Inc., a Los Angeles-based public affairs firm. He is also chairman of the Americas' Region of Worldcom, the largest independent PR network in the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.