DIGITIAL DIALOGUES ENHANCE PUBLIC OUTREACH
3/14/12 // Mark Rushing
Not all that long ago, public meetings and surveys were about the only ways to garner public comment. Both are still used and can be effective in certain situations, but both are limiting in different ways. Surveys dont provide an opportunity for group discussion while public meetings only allow participation from those in attendance.
Interactive online surveys and voting tools, blogs, group chats, and a seemingly never-ending supply of new social media tools like Facebook and LinkedIn now allow us to comment, share ideas, and engage in a larger discussion. Group discussion is no longer contained by location or square footage, but only by the number of people who know about the discussion and are interested and motivated enough to participate. There are still roadblocks of course like not being able to gain access to a Wi-Fi network while on vacation but its never been easier to coordinate a public outreach effort, digitally, that can accomplish so many different things including:
Harnessing collective thought, ideas, and opinions
Establishing and prioritizing challenges and solutions
Gauging the level of support for specific ideas or activities
Creating or contributing to an ongoing dialogue or debate
As you plan a public outreach effort, here are six easy steps to keep in mind regardless of your end goal, audience, or the digital channels you decide to utilize:
IMAGINE A PERFECT ENDING
As you begin the research needed to plan your public outreach effort, stop long enough to consider your end goals not just the minimum requirements used to measure and evaluate your success at the end of the campaign, but imagine the perfect scenario of how you would like to see your effort unfold. Dont be afraid to think big. This kind of visualization can be energizing and will allow you to more clearly see what steps may be required to make it happen.
For instance, developing a regional green agenda was the original goal of a recent campaign. Nothing wrong with that: its a worthwhile goal. But after imagining the best possible result, the goal evolved into something more powerful: allowing the people of the region to develop their own regional green agenda. In this case, the subtle change turned a worthwhile effort into a cause, a movement to allow everyone the chance to have a say in the future of their region.
GO CHANNEL SURFING
While zeroing in on the audiences you need to reach, also consider which digital communication channels will be most effective for your specific effort. Just because approximately 850 million people use Facebook doesnt mean its necessarily a good fit for your campaign. If youre hoping to establish a dialogue with a specific set of business owners for example, a better choice might be a discussion group on LinkedIn, the digital networking tool used by many business professionals to exchange information and updates, stay connected, and coordinate group discussions.
You may need several digital channels or tools to accomplish your goal. Just like theres no such thing as the perfect ingredient combination for a pizza (my favorite ingredients are different than yours), theres no perfect digital mix for a campaign. Dont assume that because Twitter, YouTube and Google+ are your favorite social media channels, that any of the three will work best for the public outreach effort youre working on. In the same way you treat each campaign and its specific goals differently, you must decide what digital mix is best for each effort.
Not intimately familiar with Google+? Do your research, go channel surfing, and you might find a digital tool that seems as if its made just for the purpose you had in mind. The discovery of an interactive voting tool that allowed participants to submit ideas, comment, and vote on ideas submitted by others turned out to be the key piece of the regional green agenda development campaign, allowing a region to collectively discuss and debate issues, ideas, and challenges; prioritize possible solutions; and help create a plan that citizens were invested in and could support.
BE CREATIVELY ENGAGING
The goal of any public outreach campaign is to engage the audience enough to take action in some way. Whether the goal is to attract volunteers, increase donations, or to make a personal change like giving up cigarettes, your effort must be engaging. The vast array of digital tools and social media channels at your disposal are worthless unless your messages are engaging (and you choose the right tools to reach your targeted audiences). A blog post is only as good as the blogger. YouTube is only as good as the video. Be creative, sure, but more importantly, be engaging.
Creating a YouTube video summarizing the regional green agenda development process makes sense. But will it move anyone to action? On the other hand, creating a video that showcases a student-led effort to stop the use of Styrofoam lunch trays at their elementary school can inspire and motivate. The actual Stopping Styrofoam at Chenal Elementary video even attracted media attention, engaging a larger audience to do something to help. While the mediums you choose and timing are extremely important, its still the messages and the level of engagement those messages create that determine how successful your public outreach effort will be.
MAKE IT EASY
What was once impossible is now mainstream. The once highly futuristic idea of a paperless society seems more plausible every day. But all our digital toys are only as useful as the users ability to use them. Just because you may be ahead of the technological curve doesnt mean the people you need to reach are techies just like you. Revising the United Negro College Funds 40-year old slogan a bit, I think all PR practitioners can agree that an engaged audience member is also a terrible thing to waste. So no matter what mediums you choose to use, make them as user friendly as possible. The fewer registration and login hurdles, the better.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
No matter how many digital elements you use for any campaign, consider how they perform individually and how they work as a unit. Consistency and timeliness of messages can be an issue if different members of your team are responsible for different elements. Did someone add an announcement to the Web site without passing on the same information to the person in charge of social media? On the other hand, if you are one of the only people or the only person assigned to coordinate the digital network, focus on multi-purposing your content. For example, one video blog can be distributed through multiple digital channels including the campaigns Web and blog sites, YouTube, Facebook, and mentioned with a link via Twitter.
The campaign mentioned earlier (allowing central Arkansas to develop its own regional green agenda) utilized six digital components. The Web site served as the digital concierge of the campaign, an initial interface where participants could learn about the effort and choose from an array of educational and interactive resources including a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and a series of YouTube videos, and a voting tool, all working together to engage participants enough to submit their own ideas, challenges, and solutions as well as voting on and discussing the merits of ideas submitted by neighbors from across the region. In this case, the interactive voting tool was the primary meeting place for the public while the other mediums filled more of a supporting role to create awareness, educate, update, connect, and engage participants, inspiring them to get involved and spread the word. Just one example of virtually limitless digital and social media combinations that can support public outreach and garner public participation.
Digital and social media can be effective means of communication, but only if you have the right tools for the job and compelling content. In addition to creating the compelling messages, you must determine which tools will be most effective in engaging your target audiences and producing the results you hope to achieve.
Mark Rushing is formerly Director of Public Relations at Thoma Thoma.