Successful Non-Profits Demand Effective Public Engagement, Not Basic PR

In today’s 24–7 media environment, it is no surprise that non-profit organizations often think public relations is the “holy grail” that will solve all that ails it, programmatically, operationally, and financially. We just need that one press release, one media hit, or one viral video to secure immediate and lasting success.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. A decade ago, a $500M non-profit hired me to build it a world-class marketing and communications shop. On my first day, I was told the top priority was building a new website. On day three, the priority was getting on social media, with an emphasis on Facebook, Twitter, and Four Square.

I had to take some time to explain that Facebook didn’t make strategic sense, as our primary audiences weren’t looking to the platform for the type of information we would share. And Four Square would never make sense as almost no one cared if our staff had just arrived at the Sheraton in Denver.

Then, as I have several times since, I used the discussion as a teachable moment. To explain that any and all PR activities just be tied to goals that align to mission. That every PR activity and dollar needs to be tied to that same mission. And that the truly successful non-profits need public engagement leaders, not basic publicists.

What does that mean? I’ve often declared that I am a disciple of Dan Yankelovich’s public engagement model, a process developed while he was at Public Agenda. In reflection, I realize I am not just a disciple, but I am an evangelist. The Yankelovich model has been a centerpiece for my professional work, a way of thinking that has driven much of what I’ve done since my mentor first taught it to me nearly 20 years ago.

Many in the non-profit sector may be thinking and doing like Yankelovich without even knowing it. It is based on the premise that effective public — or community — engagement is more than just a one-way information system, one where the communicator continues to push out data, facts, or opinions in hopes that target audiences consume it.

No, the Yankelovich approach requires stakeholders to take specific action. It realizes true success comes by moving from informing the public to building commitment to a solution to finally mobilizing the public around specific actions.

There is a great difference between making stakeholders aware of a concern like the need properly installed car seats or the need for the science of reading in the classroom or taking 10,000 steps a day to the more sophisticated level of informed public opinion necessary to reach consensus on both the problem and the possible solutions, generating a sense of urgency that ultimately leads to the action of adopting a change and integrating it into day-to-day behaviors of all involved.

The Inform-Build Commitment-Mobilize Action process can be broken down to understand the steps necessary to move through this process. Using a seven-stage model developed by Yankelovich and the Public Agenda Foundation, we can analyze the process of engaging a target audience and moving them from uninformed bystander to an action-oriented group. These stages are:

  • Becoming aware of the issues
  • Developing a sense of urgency
  • Looking for answers
  • Managing and persevering through resistance
  • Weighing choices
  • Intellectual acceptance
  • Full acceptance

In applying these seven stages to our key audiences, we must recognize that each stakeholder group may be at a different point along this continuum. Understanding this is critical to designing and implementing the appropriate tactics to move them to action. Many a plan has failed because it was based on the assumption that one size fits all audiences.

As a society, it if often easy for us to recognize there are problems in need of our attention, but to also know that many do not agree on what those problems may be or what actions might successfully address them. And, unfortunately, too many people believe that there is nothing that can be done to fix these problems. When a problem has existed for a long period of time, people stop seeing it as a problem and start seeing it as a situation.

Once individuals believe in the interpretation of the problem, they are ready to commit to a solution. That means transforming one’s mission into a call to arms to demonstrate to a variety of audiences, in dramatic and memorable ways, that these solutions are the right ones to improve efficiency and success.

When people feel that an issue is urgent they begin to demand solutions. If we have been successful in defining the issue in our terms, it will be easier for us to state solutions convincingly. In this stage, people will demand action from a range of stakeholders. This is a good time to organize meetings to introduce specific actions that our audiences can take to help us reach our goal.

Inevitably, some people will reject the proposed solutions. This leads to the most difficult stage of the process. Some audiences will be reluctant to face and accept the trade-offs that come from choosing a specific plan of action and opponents will try to poke holes in our ideas. This resistance may be heightened by misunderstanding, narrow thinking, wishful thinking, or resistance to change. The best way to avoid this resistance is to ensure that everyone is involved in the process and that all of their concerns have been heard.

Only after pushing through this resistance can people begin to weigh their choices rationally and look to a variety of options for moving recommendations into practice. At this stage, stakeholders should feel that they have a range of choices and a reason to make them. As leaders in this process — with a special awareness of how decisions are made — we can clarify the pros and cons of each decision and allow time and opportunity for deliberation.

It is then we can mobilize for action. Changing attitudes and informing the debate is not enough. Just as a politician who has convinced 50.1 percent of the public to support his/her issues, but who has not succeeded in convincing them to go to the polls on Election Day, will lose the election, advocates for change or improvement cannot accomplish their goals unless supporters move from passive acquiescence to active engagement. We succeed when stakeholders are actively supporting its solutions.

Once our target audiences are engaged because they believe in the merits of our position, they will need to know what we want them to do to help accomplish these goals. So it is important that our communications and organizing efforts include specific actions that supporters can take to help us reach our goals. In addition, we will also need to make it easy and feasible for them to take these actions.

From there, many will agree that our efforts are valid and will produce desired results, but may not be willing to change their behavior or adopt the change. We must recognize that this is a temporary stage and that, with patience and continued effort, they will get there. It is important not to expect too much, too soon. The process of moving from awareness to action takes time.

Given time, incentives, and opportunities to consider their core values in light of challenges and needs, our audiences should reach the final stage of full intellectual and emotional acceptance of the importance of improving their community. Of course, different target audiences will reach these stages at different times and go through them at different rates. We may need to tailor the same event or materials to perform different functions depending on where in these stages specific members of our audience stand.

When it comes to public engagement and community change, the issues we often confront are topics as driven by emotion as they are by fact. As a result, too often, stakeholders decide that inaction is the best action, out of fear of taking a wrong step or alienating a specific group. For that reason, the Inform-Build Commitment-Mobilize Action model is one of the most effective methods to educate key audiences on the need for change and the long-term impact such efforts have on strengthening communities and nations across the globe.

Such a model may not be as sexy as a viral Tik Tok or two minutes on a national cable talk show, but the approach wins the organizational day. Whether we seek to boost enrollment or involvement in a program, grow our network of friends and advocates, or boost our fundraising, we need to be strategic about our brand and how we properly work with our stakeholders. PR is basic. Public engagement is the strategy that ensures our long-teem success.

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Patrick Riccards

Patrick Riccards

Father; founder and CEO of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; author of Dad in a Cheer Bow and Dadprovement books, education agitator