Attention please! Part 2: The steps agencies take to get noticed…

12 03 2011

In the midst of a multi-media, consumer society, agencies have to work hard to get their message through the morass of daily communication. And although major corporations can purchase air time during the Superbowl or American Idol, a localized public education or outreach campaign works with limited resources. So how can agencies gain the attention of their intended audiences? Here are a few techniques I’ve recently come across:

Build brand identity. A signature look, hook or character can help people identify the message source and provide reminders of what an agency advocates. In New York City, Birdie has its own social media following and makes public appearances to promote GreeNYC.

Hold contests and give recognition to participants. Interactive media makes it easy to challenge followers to take action and track it online. Utah’s Clear the Air Challenge encourages groups to form teams to track vehicle trip reduction. Interactive media also makes it easy to upload contest entries such as this call for video entries from Utah State Parks. Some kind of reward, incentive or benefit should be clearly communicated to help drive interest and participation.

Be willing to stir up a little controversy. If an issue deserves robust public discussion, don’t be afraid to establish space for it. If you don’t provide good information and a forum to air various points of view, you can bet it will happen elsewhere. In my interest to see interactive media successfully facilitate fruitful discussion, a review of a blog dedicated to discussion of education issues in Iowa caught my attention.

What do these techniques have in common? One, is the use of interactive media. There is something to do, to take part in and even belong to. This is not a lone voice in the desert or speaking from a blow-horn, it is meeting people where they are at and when they have time to engage with the message. Two, props to for providing forums and blogs to share ideas about how government agencies are using interactive media and how they can use it better.


Attention please! Part 1: The steps people take to get noticed…

4 03 2011

On the world scene, civil unrest and political turmoil in Egypt and other countries under the label the “Jasmine Revolution” is a compelling reminder of the power of the people to change political tides and collectively make a strong political stance. The rallying cry around freedom and the role of information-sharing to facilitate change is a fascinating phenomenon. The Jasmine Revolution represents public demonstrations and the voice of the people at its most extreme form where people are willing to assert their views and rights at the cost of risking their lives.

In Utah, residents watched court proceedings for Tim DeChristopher this week with interest. DeChristopher was found guilty of derailing an auction of public lands for oil and gas drilling in 2008. He claims it was an act of civil disobedience necessary to stop what he viewed as a threat to global warming. He faces up to 10 years in prison for fraud. More than 400 people gathered to rally in support of DeChristopher at the start of his trial in peaceful demonstration and he exited the courtroom after the guilty verdict Thursday to cheers and applause.

On a much smaller scale, I have witnessed 50 emails come in on a project in the past week as a letter writing campaign. No one is calling to discuss the issue, but the emails continue to arrive on a daily basis with basically the same questions and concerns. People want to state their opinion, raise their concerns and add their voice to being on record as opposed to a particular action.

Civil disobedience, protests and letter writing campaigns all have their place in the world of public process. It is often an action that takes place outside of defined processes because the existing processes are not working or constituents do not feel that they are being heard. So they begin shouting louder by showing a force of numbers, holding signs to make the news and raising the flag up the political ladder of influence.

These techniques can be considered P2 practitioners’ worst nightmares. They are a sign that something is not working and people feel a sense of desperation. Or is it? Maybe it is public participation in its purest form, a grassroots collective creating their own processes and organizing around their own interests.  Folks are willing to donate their time and make personal sacrifices because they have a message they believe in.

The biggest downside? These techniques are usually positional and limit the opportunity to engage in dialogue. These are signs of people planting their flag clearly on one side of what they view to be right and wrong. It represents a model of winners and losers rather than seeking a spirit of collaboration and compromise. The discourse of “no compromise” may have its place and it all depends on context, but I hope that people who want their voices heard are willing to engage in thorough study and discussion of issues and options, not just another shouting match.

Next week: Attention please! Part 2: The steps agencies take to get noticed…

Bored with boards at public meetings

23 02 2011

My greatest pet peeve about public meetings is an open house where someone attends but doesn’t speak to anyone. To me, this is a complete failure of public outreach and defeats the purpose of holding a meeting. What is the point of holding a meeting if you don’t take advantage of face-to-face discussion?

To avoid the silent attendee syndrome, I have shifted my public meeting philosophy to be less about boards and polished presentation and more about equipping staff to answer questions and engage people in conversation. I organized a public meeting this week with meeting materials comprised of five boards and two maps for an anticipated crowd of 100 people. These maps and graphics were tools for staff to refer to as speaking points or to help explain what is happening in the area.

I have planned public meetings in the past with umpteen boards with review after review and edit upon edit to get it just right. It is not fun to plan and I think it is not fun to attend a meeting where you take time to be in-person only to learn about a project from a series of display boards.

Here are my suggestions for effective presentation boards at public meetings:

–          Focus on visuals and graphics rather than text. Utilize boards to support sharing a message through conversation rather than relying on the board to tell the message.

–          Utilize the same images and messages in different formats. Content of handouts for take-home should match what is on display boards or in a PowerPoint presentation.

–           Print duplicate boards or maps if you anticipate a large crowd. Again, these are visual aids for staff. I like to plan meetings so that project representatives speak with small groups of people and answer their questions. Having duplicate boards allows several conversations to occur concurrently.

–          Prepare public meeting staff. Hold a pre-meeting to talk through information and anticipated questions. Let them know what visuals will be available to support their conversations.

Public meetings are about meeting people, introducing yourself and your project and hearing the questions and concerns of people who are affected by a project or decision. Interpersonal communication is still the most effective method to deliver difficult or complex information. So speak up!

Picture this

25 08 2010

The conversion of a project memo to a map this week reminded me of just how effective visuals can be. As a construction project I am working on gets underway, the management  team requested a weekly report of planned activities. Originally formatted as a memo, it looked like just another list of hard to read (do I have time to read?) items. After some consultation with me and the project graphic designer, the report was reformatted to a map with corresponding numbers to identify the location of each work item. The piece received ooohs and aaahs from the team during this week’s management meeting!

As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In our media-saturated society, the information conveyed by a visual at a glance is so vital to effective communication. We are also growing more and more accustomed to customizing our information by selecting what we want to pay attention to. The linear format of a narrative memo just doesn’t speak to people. We don’t have time or patience to wade through all the information. We want to be able to quickly ascertain what pertains to us. Use of visual tools is key to helping people sort out information and find what’s relevant.

What’s your objective?

29 07 2010

I simply can’t stress enough how important it is to define purpose and objectives before you set off to do some kind of outreach. If you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, how can you measure effectiveness? If you don’t know what you a trying to communicate to whom, how can you choose the right tools to deliver the message?

The biggest PI mistake I see made is choosing tools and trying to make the tool fit the situation rather than establishing an objective and then selecting tools that help meet the objective. (Thus the lengthy discussions about meeting format in the previous two posts…)

Most people readily admit that PI is not one-size-fits-all; yet we fall into the trap of “we need a meeting,” “we need a newsletter” or “let’s send a press release.” My response to these kinds of statements is, “Why?”

Until you can answer why, I am not a proponent of doing anything! In a time of tight funding and taxpayer scrutiny, it is important to choose and use outreach tools wisely. The tools you choose must be well-thought out and effective for your purpose. Combine limited funding with the changing media environment and information age, the same-old, same-old just won’t work.

So start with defining your objectives. Who are you trying to reach with what message for what purpose? If your objectives are clear, selecting the most effective outreach tools will follow.

My story of two recent meetings

22 07 2010

I have planned and facilitated two neighborhood meetings with emotionally-sensitive topics in the past month. The first was a meeting with property owners entering the property acquisition process. The second was a meeting with adjacent property owners who are not being acquired now, but may be in the future. We intentionally set up two separate meetings because each group has different needs and issues; to try and tackle both at once was not going to be productive for either.

In coordination with the project team, I spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of various formats. We spoke at length about what would make the best use of everyone’s time and how to make the meeting valuable to the people who attended. We focused on format and process before finalizing messaging and materials; proof that the media is the message; or in this case, the format is central to how we convey the message and how it is received.

We decided to use a table discussion format that allowed sharing information face-to-face with a small group and letting attendees’ questions drive the discussion.  This helped diffuse some of the emotion and allowed the group at the table to hear the answers to each other’s questions (especially since many people had the same questions). We provided handouts and maps at each table to support the discussion, but the strategy really depended on the table facilitators to answer questions openly, honestly and to the best of their knowledge.

Our team has developed a few mantras that have proven useful in planning for emotional contexts. One is “when you have bad news, see the whites of their eyes.” This reminds us of the need to treat each person individually and deliver information on a personal basis. The large group setting is risky because the audience can become just a sea of faces and project representatives can be viewed as Big Brother. The room set-up of presenter and audience implicitly creates an “us-them” tension. By talking around a table, we were setting up a space for conversation between people. We all act more humanely and treat each other with more respect at the conversation level.

The second guiding principle that led us to the table discussion format is transparency. In my experience, and in these situations the past month, people expressed appreciation that the project team was willing to meet with them, answer tough questions and hear their concerns. We did not prepare an elaborate presentation. We did not do a dog and pony show. We were not going to sugar-coat the difficult situation these property owners faced. People see right through that. Instead, we focused on being genuine, listening to people’s concerns and giving them the best information we had in order to equip them for the decisions to be made in coming months.

Finally, we prepared meeting staff for emotion. At a preparation meeting, we openly discussed how these property owners might feel and tried to see the project and meeting from their point of view. We discussed the need to listen and allow attendees’ time to vent. We also discussed the limits of what was acceptable and how we would support each other if a situation got out of control.

The two meetings went very well with very little eruption of emotion. People were civil, asked their tough questions and expressed their frustrations. Most attendees appeared to leave satisfied that they were heard and had more information than when they arrived. Our team agreed that keeping the conversation at the table-level was the right choice for the situation and both meetings were heralded a success!