Why the US Census Bureau’s PR Campaign is Effective

This blog post is based off of my grad school capstone project titled, “A Public Relations Campaign: The U.S. Census Bureau’s Efforts to Increase Census Participation.” Since the project is far too long for a blog post, I covered some of the highlights in this post. In short, everyone in the PR field can learn from the Census Bureau’s public relations campaign. Please contact me at jim at dittoepr.com if you would like to learn more about this study.

Indianapolis is the 14th largest city in America. How do we know? Because every ten years the Census Bureau counts every person in the U.S.—a monumental task. A campaign of this magnitude presents certain challenges, and the Census Bureau must manage an effective public relations campaign to increase census participation. Accurate census data is essential for the creation and implementation of government policies, and it takes a combination of paid advertising, media relations and promotional activities to convey important census messages to targeted groups.

Challenge #1: How to overcome the feelings of distrust of government?

Solution #1: The Partnership Program. The Census Bureau partners with organizations that people trust such as church groups, Wal-Mart and community centers. People are more likely to “buy into” the message if it comes from a trusted source. Private businesses are often corporate partners in the Partnership Program because of CSR—corporate social responsibility. 

Challenge #2: Develop a public relations campaign and that isn’t viewed as propaganda

Solution #2: Maintain a consistent message that is politically neutral. Government public relations campaigns face pressures similar to the private sector, but often there are broader political issues that can influence the message. It is important that there is no perception that the government is trying to under-count certain groups and maintain that census participation equates to public service.

Challenge #3: Many Census Bureau activities aren’t newsworthy. How should they get the message out?

Solution #3: Paid advertising.  Paid television advertising, while expensive, is often the most effective way of reaching the widest audience possible Researchers Marian and Rivers found in a 2007 study that people became more aware of the census first through advertising, followed closely by news reports, the census advance letter third, and community based activities forth. The diverse people and different cultures of the audience meant the paid advertising had to be relevant to each person while at the same time maintaining a consistent message.

Challenge #4: What is the best way to reach younger people?

Solution #4: The Census in Schools program reaches K-12 students, teachers and administrators. The program provides packets of information that teachers distribute to their students. Since schools are such an important part of every community, the Census in Schools program reaches many students, parents and guardians.

Challenge #5: How should the Census Bureau utilize social media?

Solution #5: Social Media is likely more useful for sharing news among participants in the Partnership Program than for actively recruiting people to fill out their census form. This is due to the target audience (e.g. traditionally under-counted groups) likely do not use social media. The U.S. Census Bureau’s use of technology and its influence in obtaining a more accurate count are possible areas for future study.

Currently the U.S. Census Bureau has 6,616 followers on Twitter and 91,839 Facebook fans. In March 2011 the Census Bureau completes delivery of redistricting data to the states and the 2010 census will be over.

Lessons: The Partnership Program is largely effective at restoring trust in government becomes the message comes from trusted sources. The paid advertising reaches a general audience that the Census Bureau might not inform through media outreach. In addition, the Census Bureau successfully integrates social media into its public relations campaign. Whether you’re running a campaign targeting 300,000 people or 300 MM people, all PR pros can learn from the Census Bureau’s PR campaign.

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