Public outreach is routinely considered to be an optional undertaking as opposed to a critical element of a program. But cutting public outreach from your program can be one of the costliest decisions you make. In fact, reaching out to your stakeholders can—and should—be saving you money.
In the last issue of Waste Advantage Magazine (January 2014), I shared how public outreach is more science than art—and successful outreach programs are steeped in research, with measureable outcomes. In this article, I will explore the costs associated with public outreach, noting that some of the greatest costs arise when you don’t do it well, or don’t do it at all.
When budgets are tight, oftentimes the first area of a program to be cut is the public outreach portion. This is because public outreach (or stakeholder communications) is routinely considered to be an optional undertaking—a “nice to have” as opposed to a critical element of a program. But cutting public outreach from your program, or even cutting it short, can be one of the costliest decisions you make—far costlier than actually conducting the outreach. In fact, reaching out to your stakeholders can—and should—be saving you money. Let me explain why and how.
Why Reach Out?
In order to understand its value, it’s first necessary to understand why we conduct outreach. Last month I defined public outreach to be more than the notion of sending out messages to simply “check a box.” I described the process of engagement—two-way communications between an organization and the people on whom its success depends. I explained that outreach is a complex process that develops a true understanding of your project among key stakeholders, and a true understanding on your part, of your key stakeholders’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, through meaningful dialogue that includes equal parts talking and listening on both sides. That’s what outreach is, but let’s now discuss why we do it. Outreach is not done to tell your story. It’s done to ensure programmatic success. That’s the why.
Many organizations get this wrong. They conduct outreach to tell their story, to explain (hopefully convincingly) what they are doing and why they are doing it to impacted audiences. Whether it’s a large infrastructure project, a new billing system or even a new product, many organizations see the role of outreach (or public or external affairs, or whatever you want to call it) as a self-serving pursuit. They assume their audience just needs to know what they are doing, so they often plan a strategy that ranges from the austere to the elaborate depending upon budget, to merely tell their stakeholders what they are doing and hope they come along. This “tell it and sell it” approach doesn’t just miss the boat, it portends to send the boat on an expensive course of destruction, disabling it from ever reaching its intended destination.
Whatever it is you are trying to do, your success depends on the audiences who are impacted by
it—these are the very people who likely must pay for the project and/or may need to adopt a behavior that’s new or different in order for your project to be a success. So your success depends on them not just knowing about your program, but understanding the need and agreeing, to some extent, with the solution. Raising awareness of the issue so they know about it is really only step one. If you stop there, you expose yourself to many costly risks down the line.
What’s at Stake?
You may be thinking—if budgets are tight, and I have enough funds to perhaps create a brochure, update a Web site and maybe even place a few ads in the local paper to let stakeholders know what’s going on, what’s the harm? Isn’t some form of outreach good? Yes, some outreach is better than none. But if you aren’t adequately prepared, and it’s not well-informed or well-planned outreach, even a small misstep can get you into hot water and/or become costly, quickly. The two things you stand to lose or damage are your reputation and your money.
Here are the top 10 ways your project can fail, and cost you dearly, either due to a lack of preparation and proper outreach or due to no outreach at all:
- Your stakeholders disagree in principle with what you are doing.
- Your stakeholders believe that their concerns have not been heard.
- Your stakeholders believe that what you plan to do will cause them undue harm or burden.
- You have failed to understand or consider your stakeholders’ capability to comply with your project.
- In communicating about your project, you have chosen words and phrasing that very few people understand.
- In communicating about your project, you have chosen words and phrasing that people think means one thing, but you meant something else.
- In communicating about your project, your words and/or phrasing are offensive to some stakeholders.
- You have not considered the unintended consequences of your project.
- Your project actually isn’t the best solution to the problem.
- In communicating about your project, you have chosen avenues of communication that do not reach your stakeholders.
In the case of numbers 5, 6, 7 and 10, you are simply wasting money. For example, many organizations believe paid (or even unpaid, public service) advertising is the best way to reach stakeholders because advertising is something they feel familiar with and it seems “easy enough” to do, and it promises to reach virtually everyone. But advertising well is a lot more complicated than it seems, and of the ways to raise awareness and engage an audience, it’s probably the most expensive. If you choose to advertise, without really knowing who will see your ad, how many will see it, whether anyone will act on your ad, or whether you will ever know, then you are throwing your precious dollars away. In the Washington, DC radio advertising market for example, most, if not all the radio stations broadcast to three states: DC, Maryland and Virginia. Hundreds of municipalities, towns and counties are within listening range of their broadcasts. If a county solid waste division in, say, Maryland, places advertising on the radio to encourage their residents to recycle more, their ad will also be heard by people in other counties in Maryland, as well as in counties 30 to 40 miles away in Virginia and in the District of Columbia. While they only need about 200,000 people in their county to hear the message, they are paying for 2 million people to hear it and they probably paid $50,000 to $100,000 or more for this opportunity, depending on how long it stays on the air and how often it plays. The worst part about it is, they have no way of knowing whether or what percentage of their 200,000 residents actually did hear it and what they did with the information. It’s money wasted, plain and simple. By contrast, they could have spent $2,000 or even just $200 on Facebook advertising and reached only residents of their county, guaranteed, through Facebook’s ability to target ads to geographic locations set up in user’s profiles.
Failures 5, 6, and 7, which are failures of messaging, are also completely avoidable but often experienced. We become so comfortable and familiar with the words we use every day in our jobs, we forget that “sustainability” or “alternative energy” or “single stream” are not terms everyone recognizes. Or perhaps they think they’re something you didn’t intend. When you use shop talk in messaging that you haven’t tested using a focus group or other good research method to determine how it’s received, your brochure or Web site text could be going right by unnoticed either because your audiences didn’t know what you meant, or think they knew but didn’t care because you didn’t put in terms relevant to them. So the money you spent to create the collateral material and circulate it was wasted.
That’s why doing the outreach right—using research to understand where and how to reach your stakeholders (and with what messaging that has meaning, context and relevance), as discussed in last month’s issue, is so critical, and really does save you money.
Looking at the rest of the list, far more is at stake. If your outreach merely consisted of a “tell it and sell it” approach—where you create some brochures or post some information to your Web site or conduct some advertising, hoping everyone will just get on board, without the very critical first step of research to understand your stakeholders’ awareness levels, attitudes and behaviors, then your financial risks go beyond just wasting your money with the ineffective messaging or ineffective channels. Failures 1 to 4, 8, and 9 will cost you more time and resources to “make it right” and in the most extreme examples, litigation may be involved. While the financial loss or waste associated with these consequences can be large, it pales in comparison to the reputational hit you may take as a result which can take years to rebuild—on top of—the additional investment you’ll need to help repair the brand.
Take, for example, the small but very vocal minority group that believed a waste-to-energy project would endanger their health by polluting the air, water and local farms with particulate matter and noxious trace elements. You weren’t listening to them, or you didn’t engage them in your research or development phase, so there was no opportunity for either side to receive new information that challenged their convictions. So, as the opponents dug in, they were able to delay the project (costly), convince regulators to require more study (costlier) or in a worse case, sue to pull the plug on the project altogether (catastrophic). All the while, you appeared to be callous, to lack compassion and to be indifferent to public concern, when ironically, all you thought you were doing was building something that was in their best interest. Your lack of engagement may have generated or fueled a latent feeling of distrust. Taking the time to hear and respond to concerns is a small investment for a large payback. While it may result in project compromise, it may also be the difference in whether your project actually reaches fruition.
Commit to the Costs
Conducting thoughtful, smart outreach is not cheap. Nationwide, the average investment in outreach typically runs $1 to $3 per household, depending upon whether this is a new or ongoing project and the resources available. So for a community of 100,000 homes, a good outreach budget would be $300,000 per year. Or, another way to plan your budget is to consider spending one percent of the total project value on outreach, so a $100 million project would have an outreach budget of about $1 million. So commit to the outreach—and the costs associated with it. You’ll find the investment much cheaper than the consequences you may face if you don’t.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.