Just like engineering, good, effective public outreach programs are fueled by data and research. Then specific, targeted and typically well-known strategies are applied to yield results that are intentional and quite measureable.

Samantha Villegas 

Throughout my career working alongside engineers, I have often heard communications referred to as a “soft skill.” I have never quite understood this, however, as communications is one of the hardest things to get right. Along that same line, there also seems to be a prevailing thought that stakeholder communications, or what some refer to as public outreach, is some kind of art form, where there is no truly “right” answer or approach, and the end result is highly interpretive. In actuality, public outreach is more science than art. Just like engineering, good, effective public outreach programs are fueled by data and research. Then specific, targeted and typically well-known strategies are applied to yield results that are intentional and quite measureable. Let me explain.


Defining Public Outreach

Public outreach is not, as many may think, the practice of sending out messages to key stakeholders, though, that is in essence what’s happening in many communities. Real public outreach—the kind that seeks as its end goal, true understanding of your project, through meaningful engagement of a well-informed citizenry—is much more complex than checking the box for message sent. For one, how do you know your message was received? And are you certain it was understood in the way you intended? Did the key people hear and understand it? Did they take action? Was it the action what you hoped they’d take? A scientific approach to your outreach program can get you these answers.


Just as is the case for any engineering project, an outreach strategy is designed to solve a problem. So the first step in the strategy development is to define the problem, or challenge, you face. It could be that you need an alternative, or an additional way, to manage your community’s solid waste, and you need input through the decision making process. Or, you are changing curbside service and you need users to understand what’s happening and get onboard. Or, perhaps you have a community that’s not participating at the level you want, or they are doing something wrong, and you need them to do more activity, or change their habits. Whatever your challenge, you first have to define it well.


Understanding Your Audience

In defining your challenge, one of the most critical pieces of data to study and to understand is your audience. Who are you trying to reach? If you say, “the general public” you are going to set yourself up for failure, since, you have probably realized, we’re all as different as thumbprints. We have different values and, therefore, different attitudes about public issues like solid waste management. We have different points of view, levels of education and interests, so we receive, process and filter information very differently. So if you try to engage us all with the same information in the same way, you are invariably going to miss a whole lot of people, or worse, cause more confusion. You need to be more specific than “the general public.”


Prioritize Your Audience

You need to prioritize and then profile your many “publics.” Ask yourselves, who has the most stake in your success: Men or women? Adults or children? Residents in a certain geographic location or businesses of a certain type or size? Nail down the group or groups you need to reach. I am guessing your resources for this effort may be tight, so select the top three to five segments of the general population that you believe will yield the best results and stop there. It’s easier to obtain more resources after demonstrating marked success on a smaller group than it is to convince a decision maker that your approach to getting everyone involved didn’t work due to a lack of money.


Profile Your “Public(s)”

Once you have these three to five groups, your next step is to profile them. For example, if you’ve decided a target audience you want to reach is a female household member, 25 or older, who is also a mom, because you did the research and determined that this audience segment in your area makes all the decisions or has all the household influence when it comes to household recycling, then you need to profile the typical mom in your community. Who is she and what is she like? Does she work at home or is she away at an office most of the day? Is she of a certain generation (Generation X or Millennial)? What’s her income range? Home ownership status? What’s her ethnicity? Most of this information is tracked for cities and counties in an economic development office or in the U.S. Census. It takes some time, but it’s well worth it, because you will be able to paint a very specific picture of who this person is you are trying to reach. Once you do that, it can direct you towards how best to reach her, using what strategies for outreach, and how to frame the message so it’s relevant to her, and she understands it.


Determine Your Strategies

When that exercise is complete, then, and only then, are you ready to determine the strategies you will use to reach your audience segment. All of those factors listed above, combined with—let’s face it—your available budget will help you decide which strategies to employ. Developing a full profile of the people you want to reach will help you make decisions about the best way to reach them. It will dictate whether it’s worth your while to work on getting articles published in the local paper, or have fliers circulated at church or the grocery store. It could help you decide whether advertising on radio will be effective and which station to use. It will help you decide whether Facebook or Twitter is appropriate, or even Pinterest. It will dictate how to frame the messaging—what’s the lead and why does it matter to them? This will vary from segment to segment, so you will want to tailor messages to reach them.


Measuring Success

Finally, how do you know you’ve reached them? Changed behaviors? Better awareness? How will success be measured? There are two basic ways to measure success, and you need to decide what these will be before you start, and—this is key—also get assurance from your decision makers that that is how they will define success, too. The two ways to measure success are measuring outputs—what efforts do you put forth and, more effectively, outcomes—and what happened as a result of your efforts. It’s smart to measure both, but emphasis should be placed on outcomes. In order to measure outcomes, you have to set up objectives that enable that measurement. Objectives should be written for each audience segment, and have elements of time, behavior or awareness, and amount of change. So, for example, if you are targeting moms, as in the earlier example, an objective might be:

  • Ex. Within two years, 75 percent of moms, when surveyed, will know which type of plastics can be recycled in their bin. This objective requires that some quantitative research has been completed. It means that you have somehow polled them, scientifically, to know that 75 percent of moms knew something. This could be accomplished through man-on-the street interviews, electronic surveys or even Facebook. The online tools available to us today make targeted, quantitative measurement easy. Alternatively, your objective could be focused on outputs. Although these are not as results-oriented as outcome objectives, at least you’ll have a sense of the effort put forth.
  • Ex. Within one year, we will mail a letter to all 50,000 households served by our program six times. Though this second example does not have an awareness or behavioral change element to it, as an objective, it can help you allocate resources to assure decision makers that a solid effort has been made.


Find Out What You Need

So, the next time someone says you need a brochure or a video or a campaign, you should first ask, how do we know that’s what we need? Find out first what is the desired end result, by which segments of the audience. Then you can tell them with full confidence what it is you need to create or do, and you will be able to clearly illustrate with data, how successful you were.


Samantha Villegas is an accredited public relations professional with more than 20 years of experience assisting corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies achieve positive social behavioral changes in the areas of water, energy, recycling, immigration and health. As Vice President at GBB (Fairfax, VA), Samantha leads the public outreach and engagement programs for clients, and oversees the firm’s own marketing efforts. Samantha is recognized as a Metro-Washington, D.C. regional leader in public relations. She has led and chaired various regional government committees of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in the formation and implementation of education and outreach campaigns and served as the 2013 president of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Samantha can be reached at (800) 573-5801 or via e-mail at svillegas@gbbinc.com.


Part two of this article, More Cost Savings Than Cost Center, will look at the costs associated with conducting strategic public outreach, Too often, this portion of a project is seen as a cost sink, and it is therefore the first item to be cut from a budget. However, in actuality, your outreach can—and should—be saving you money.



Profile and Prioritize Your Audience


  • Who has the MOST stake in your success?
  • Who has the MOST influence?
  • Who are they?
  • What do they read?
  • Who are their allies?


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