Community outreach is a unique discipline within public relations.
For public agencies trying to change consumption behavior, developers wanting to inform a neighborhood of a change or non-profits hoping to gain support, the challenge is to influence the community as an outsider.
Along with posing additional communication challenges, the major difficulty for community outreach—and its differentiator from other forms of public relations—is that your target audience is typically not interested in what you’re trying to say.
Think about it.
People seek products or services to solve immediate pain points. If there’s no perceived problem, there’s no need to seek a solution. Community members going about their daily lives typically aren’t:
- Proactively looking to change their behavior
- Hoping to become informed about something they aren’t aware of
- Picking up another cause to support
In short, the people you’re trying to communicate with don’t know about your project and don’t care.
Clearly, the main goal of community outreach is to make the target audience care, but the “how” is where some organizations miss the mark.
As with all sound communication plans, there is no silver bullet to achieve program objectives. Instead, organizations must develop a strategy that leverages the right content, across the right channels, at the right time.
It’s easier said than done, but to ease the process, here are five crucial elements to developing an effective and efficient community outreach plan.
- A good understanding of the target audience
Rule #1 of good communication: Know your audience.
What this really means is to know what unifies the community and what’s important to them so you can effectively tailor your outreach.
Once you know what the community finds important, you’ll be able to communicate how your project aligns with those values. The community is going to ask themselves, “so what?” to any new information thrown at them, and your outreach should always answer that question.
- Be proactive
Since you know the community is going to question the information you’re trying to convey, be proactive in explaining what’s in it for them. Seize the opportunity to control messages that will make a first impression. If you don’t, the door is open for detractors and the ill-informed to steal your thunder or create turbulence that will compete against accurate information.
Proactivity is necessary across all channels where conversations in the community are happening. Make sure journalists covering the beat are informed, have a website and social media presence to push information and identify other touch points to utilize. The more information you provide, the more you empower the community to be involved in the process.
- Community partnerships
Find creative, mutually beneficial ways to partner with organizations already serving the audience you want to connect with. These groups have built trust with their members and those they influence, so a partnership serves as third-party validation of your organization, the project and its mission.
The best partnerships are with groups whose purpose aligns with the goals of your project. Determine how your project is complementary to their mission because you don’t want to compete for the same attention.
- Engage in-person
The old saying, “advertisements don’t sell products, people sell products” is true for community outreach. Make creating face time with the community a priority in your strategy.
People are skeptical. Face-to-face meetings are important for removing that skepticism and creating personal relationships. Even better, get influencers involved in creating a solution early on so that they become ambassadors for the project and its goals.
Always remember that communities want to be a part of the process, not have something thrust on them.
- Be responsive
Being part of the process also means dialogue should flow two ways. Some community input should find its way into the plan. Too often, agencies bring a 95% developed solution to a community and don’t leave room for responsiveness.
The engagement must be early enough in the process to allow for stakeholder input. If you know a component of a project is a perfect fit for the community, engage them in a way that allows them to “discover” that component as a solution. People always love to support their own ideas.
Of course, the most important part is presenting a project that is valuable to the target community. Once you’ve identified the value, there are many different techniques and strategies to communicate it effectively. However, you only get one shot at a first impression, which is why it’s always best to call on the communications experts for support.