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Tip of the Month: The Message and the Medium

Tip of the Month: August 2012

IAP2USA members may bristle at the notion of being compared (or confused) with public relations.  The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”  To some extent, the work we do in public participation also is designed to build mutually beneficial relationships, but where public relations professionals might seek to convey a specific position or point of view, public participation professionals would steer clear of that in favor of more “neutral” communications.

But IAP2USA members might benefit from a closer look at some of the aspects of public relations work to achieve greater success their public participation work.  For instance, PR professionals seem to have a knack for “getting the word out” about events of various sorts, and no public participation process can work as its designers intend if the public doesn’t know the process is happening.  Beyond just knowing specific media outlets to use for publicity, PR professionals can also help craft messages that clearly communicate to the public what the process is all about, just as they must for politicians, corporations, and others who need to communicate clearly. 

As you contemplate your public participation process, you don’t necessarily need to partner with or hire a public relations professional, but you probably should think a bit like one.  Think about where the people interested in your process look for information and how you can use those channels to present information in a way that compels them to participate.  So, the medium and the message are both important.  For instance, your local public radio station or a 24-news TV channel might be willing to set aside some air time each week to discuss an opportunity for the public to participate.  Organizations with print or electronic newsletters seem to be always looking for content, so a blurb for them would help.  In this age of information overload, where so many sources of information exist, some are turning to their neighborhood associations or other trusted organizations for information. 

Along the lines of other free or very low-cost methods for getting the word out, you can utilize the public spaces overseen by the sponsoring agency to post information—so if it’s a city or town with libraries and recreation centers and parks, those are great places, as are other gathering places like college campuses, large stores or malls, schools (who often have ways for you to send home fliers with students), and businesses (who will occasionally distribute emails to their entire workforce).  Get creative, but think about all of the places where you see information, and go after the sources where costs are low. 

Beyond that, think about the message.  “Please attend a community meeting session about the future of our city in 30 years” could also read “Our community’s population could double in 30 years.  We need your help to plan for that.”  Or, “A public meeting on the city’s water utility will occur next week,” could read “The city is facing a major water shortage that could mean significant cuts for individual users.  We need your input on how to deal with this challenging situation.”  Certainly, no one expects a public participation professional to exaggerate or create a false sense of urgency.  But it is important to provide the public with compelling reasons for participating—just as PR professionals try to provide compelling reasons to vote for a candidate or buy a product. 

So, be mindful of the message you convey to potential public participants and the media you use to convey that message.  For more advice, get in touch or share your ideas here!

 

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