Diversity Ethics Thought Leadership

Lessons from the 2010 Census Communications Campaign

As a public relations professional, I was impressed by the very strategic outreach to persuade citizens to respond to the 2010 Census. This year’s campaign exemplified a formula for fool-proof communications — prepare the audience, make a connection, be brief,  remind them and, if you still don’t get a response, go out and find them.

Much has been written about the extensive, integrated communications campaign built around the Census. The campaign engaged a full spectrum of tactics, including paid media, earned media, partnerships, a host of special initiatives and a persistent workforce. And yet, the Census is a case study of good old fashioned communications — getting a compelling sender to meet a receptive receiver, resulting in targeted results. 

Be Noticed
The pre-mailing activities to prepare U.S. households for the Census included an aggressive media campaign and targeted regional events. Among them were concerts — if you want your message to be noticed, a free concert with stellar talent certainly can’t hurt. I attended a Chicago concert, which featured big-named talent and senior government officials advocating that citizens respond to the Census coming in the mail.

Be Brief
The 2010 Census is one of the shortest in history. The questionnaire could not have been simpler, with 10 questions anticipated to take less than 10 minutes to answer. Having a small household, I completed my form in less than five — and, I remembered to include ethnicity and ages.

Be Persistent
But, the best laid plans can easily go astray — especially in our busy, digital world where the “mail” is less of a focus. But, online Census submission was not an option, and I ended up carrying my census envelope around for weeks, intending to drop if off at the post office. Finally, as I pulled into my driveway one day, a perky young woman waved at me like she had known me for years. As I got out of the car, she approached me with a clipboard and asked if she could ask me a few questions. When I realized she was a Census taker, I showed her my completed – and yet unmailed – envelope. Nevertheless, she was happy to complete my questionnaire right on the spot. Now, that was persistence at its best.

Be Current
Built into the campaign was a program that served both communications objectives and a current economic need. Maximizing the persistence quotient, the Census effort called for an army of workers to walk up people’s driveways or walkways to get the questionnaires done.  During the current economic downturn, accompanied by high unemployment, the Census plan offered a ready, short-term means to create employment and boost self-esteem for many out-of-work individuals.

Be Relevant
Another element of the campaign’s success was the relevance of its message. Citizens needed to know why it was so important to fill out the questionnaire. It was made clear that it wasn’t only about satisfying the mandate of the U.S. Constitution to provide an account of the nation’s population, but also about providing data to structure government representation and distribute more than $400 billion in federal monies to fund the nation’s infrastructure, from schools to roads to health care.

Be Cognizant
Part of the success of the communications campaign, though, rests in the hands of citizens – yes, we’re all communicators! As public relations professionals, we should have heightened awareness of the importance of reporting complete and accurate information. It’s in the PRSA Code of Ethics, in fact, and it should also be part of our professional DNA.

And for PRSA members, there’s yet another dimension to the 2010 Census experience. To advocate on behalf of the profession, we have engaged a strategic plan to make The Business Case for Public Relations. Making the “Case” means ensuring that public relations is relevant — in its value proposition for business, in its ethical execution of professional best practices and in its reflection of, and embrace of, diversity.

So, as citizens, public relations professionals and PRSA members, it should be triply evident that it’s incumbent upon us to respond to a too-often-ignored Census question — that is, our race/ethnicity identification. In PRSA membership surveys, in fact, I’ve seen fully one-third who have left out this important piece of information. My perspective as an African-American woman makes me all the more attuned to the key role of diversity in our professional and cultural heritage as well as the vibrancy of our future.

The 2010 Census can be a case study for public relations professionals in more ways than one. Let it also be the inspiration for us to identify, pursue and celebrate the diversity of our profession as well as our nation.

Wynona Redmond is senior counsel to the PRSA Board of Directors and Director of Public Affairs & Government Relations at Dominick’s Finer Foods in Chicago.

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