Boots on the Ground: Tricks to Implementing a Successful Public Outreach Campaign
Let’s talk about something not sexy or trendy, but something vital to the life of certain, high-profile projects — public outreach. It may not be the most glamorous job in public relations, but it can be the most fascinating. Public outreach and community relations campaigns are a branch of PR that requires thick skin and a never ending supply of patience; not to mention having a deft feel for the pulse of a region. More importantly, the execution of your campaign can make or break a project. Thus, stakes are high with these efforts, especially when you have millions of dollars depending on your success.
Most outreach teams are responsible for everything that comes with project narratives. This includes branding, messaging, public education, talking points, media relations, and all this while continually shaping the ongoing narrative. This is something East River PR has done successfully for many large-scale projects.
Public outreach also includes implementation of tactics that drive awareness. This blog focuses on these tactics and dishing out the nitty gritty truth on how to execute this successfully.
Here are some tips (and hard-knock lessons) to help you execute a successful public outreach campaign.
Tip: Understand your role
So what exactly is public outreach? Short answer — informing the public on project information, and making it easy to access and comprehend.
However, outreach is not that straightforward. The trick to successful outreach, really, is to understand the community and all its nuances. This means knowing, reaching and engaging all the different players within the community.
My experience has landed me on multiple transportation projects (everyone’s favorite topic that brings out the most passionate responses from the public). I quickly learned that important information looks different for every subgroup in the community — information a morning commuter cares about is vastly different than a weekend visitor.
Your role involves so much more than pushing out information. Put yourself in the minds of all the different residents and visitors and second-home owners and temporary residents and next-town-over commuters….the list goes on. Moreover, I believe, the real goal of your role is to not only inform the community, but sometimes, it involves changing the narrative.
Tip: Understand the community
Understanding the nuance of each community you are working with is essential. Public outreach is not one-size fits all, and each community comes with its own quirks, values and challenges. I not only suggest that you read local media (newspaper, blogs, Facebook pages), but reach out to community members who are active and in the community. Try your best to understand what the hot-topics are (hint: one of them is probably your client’s project) and more importantly try to grasp how the community communicates and functions. Are certain subgroups competing with each other (newcomers and long-time residents), how active is civic engagement, what are the community’s core values? Ways to achieve this means getting involved — attend city council meetings, look up what is being heatedly discussed on NextDoor.com, go to the local coffee shop.
Tip: Get out of your chair...like now
Sometimes the old-fashioned tactics work the best. I strongly recommend going door-to-door in the areas that will be impacted the most. Yes, send eNews updates, press releases, hold public meetings, but if you really want to spread the word (and get people on board) you need to knock on some doors. This not only jump starts the process of relationship building, but it shows stakeholders that there are humans they can talk to, and that you care.
When I worked on the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Grand Avenue Bridge project, a giant, invasive bridge rebuild project, we would walk the business district (which was the most impacted area) at least once a week to give business owners a quick update on progress and to do a check-in. Not only were we building trust and winning them over despite the financial hit they took due to construction, we learned about issues that we were able to get in front of, issues, that if left unattended, could have cause a bigger problem and potentially bad press.
Tip: Be readily available...like all the time
Especially, when dealing with highly impactful and invasive projects, the more easily the public can get their questions answered, and a chance to be heard, the more cooperative community members will be. Responding quickly and appropriately will help maintain a positive perception of the project.
During my time working on the Colorado bridge project, we had a three prong approach to being accessible to the public. We tasked a person to answering project emails, held regular meetings for core stakeholders, and, what I deemed most effective, was a project hotline.
However, hotlines are not for the faint of heart. Do not implement this unless you are serious about monitoring it. There is nothing worse than claiming accessibility and not delivering the goods. There should be a phone solely dedicated to this number, and it should be answered during business hours. All voicemails should be tended to promptly. Tip within a tip: use the phone’s greeting to plug in new traffic updates, construction hours and any quick answers to frequently asked questions — and don’t forget to plug the project website and social media.
Tip: Be patient...even with it hurts
This could be the most important and useful tip of the bunch. Change can be hard — even if it is a beautification project. The idea of changing the landscape residents have known for so long and have come to find comfort in, can be difficult. Also, remember that your project could be disrupting their day-to-day lives, their livelihood or their way-of-life. Don’t just be patient but be compassionate, remind yourself of their point-of-view before prepping for a public forum, presentation or when you are out doing check-ins. So, when you are face-to-face with an overly-passionate stakeholder, take a breath, count to 10, and start problem solving.
As promised this was not a sexy or trendy blog — but it was written from the heart. I believe the only way to implement a successful outreach campaign is to have your boots on the ground and literally get your hands dirty. And regardless of the long days, and at times, fraught tears — public outreach is truly my favorite type of public relations work. When a project wraps up, nothing beats seeing the community that you worked so closely with reap the rewards.
This post is part of an ongoing knowledge series from East River PR. Each of our team members have a unique skill-set and background that they bring to the table and the chaos of agency life is chock full of opportunities to hone our craft. We’ve all gained from collaboration with our team, our clients, and jobs we’ve had along the way, so we’d like to pay it forward here.
Samantha Gillespie is East River PR’s Outreach Coordinator. She executes strategic community relations efforts using on-the-ground outreach practices and delivering on-point messaging through public events and presentations. She also uses her writing and research skills to best capture and tell client stories. Prior to East River PR, Samantha developed her communication and outreach skills as a public information and community relations specialist on a large-scale redevelopment project for the Colorado Department of Transportation. She is currently earning a master's degree in Communication Studies at University of Nevada, Reno. When off the clock, Samantha can be found kayaking on Lake Tahoe or watching reruns of Mad Men with her cat.