Category Archives: brand awareness

Public, Nonprofit Sectors: We Have a Failure to Communicate with Clients

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Nonprofit communicators spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right message and channels for reaching donors, volunteers and the ill-defined “general public.”

But how much time is spent trying to communicate with potential and existing clients? You know, the ones who are supposed to benefit from our services?

When it comes to human service nonprofits and governmental agencies, we often fail to use public relations best practices:  Research, Plan, Implement and Evaluate.

Two recent examples I’ve encountered involve a school district trying to inform the community about proposed rezoning and a government program to provide low-income individuals with vehicle repair and replacement grants so they can continue to work.

In both instances, the clients or customers are blamed for not participating and/or accessing services.

For example, a school district with over 11,000 students sends fliers home in folders to parents about a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. on a weekday at one particular school. Only a couple dozen people showed up. In addition to the small turnout, many of those attending are Latino/a and either don’t speak English or English is their second language. The fliers were not translated nor was a translator available to speak to those constituents during the meeting.

When questioned about the low turnout, district staff defended the use of the fliers, adding the information was posted on the website and in the district’s e-newsletter. And, a story had been placed in the local newspaper.

It was up to the parents to get that information and get to the event. That was the expectation on the part of the district.

A big-box store that pays its marketing staff or agency would not accept that explanation  (excuse) for customers failing to come through the door. That is a poor return on investment.

For-profit marketing staff would be expected to figure out why the message didn’t work and what channels are appropriate. They also would be expected to examine whether the timing and location for such events are appropriate for the target audience.

In this case, the marketing staff should know that since nearly 44 percent of the students are Hispanic, one side of the homebound flier and the on-site handouts should have been translated into Spanish.

Since 44 percent of all children in the district are also eligible for the federal free lunch program, marketing staff should be mindful of the reading and verbal comprehension levels of parents. In print pieces and in public presentations, district staff should avoid education jargon that is confusing and possibly intimidating.

The school district staff should have tested the messaging and explored the best channels for reaching parents and taxpayers. They also should have researched whether having a community meeting on a week night at a school on one side of town was the best time, date and location.

Planning based on the research would have dictated a refined message, the appropriate channels and the time, date and location of a single or multiple forums if the district truly wanted and valued citizen engagement.

After Implementation of the plan grounded in the research, the district would want to evaluate whether the district achieved its goal of effectively informing the public about its plans for rezoning. Metrics for success would include turnout and feedback surveys of attendees.  The results of the evaluation would inform future efforts and help the district examine its existing message and channels and refine them as needed.

In the second case,  I learned during a county commissioners court session of a program that was started at the federal level and has trickled down to local levels that would provide low-income individuals with grants to repair or replace vehicles so they can continue to get to work.

It was the first I had heard of the program and I know several nonprofits that serve individuals who would benefit from the assistance.

I set to trying to find out more about the program. The first challenge was its name: the Low-Income Repair Assistance, Retrofit and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program or (LIRAP). That is a mouthful of a title and even college-educated citizens are going to have a tough time grasping what that means.

To add insult to injury, in Texas the program is known as “AirCheckTexas Drive a Clean Machine -Vehicle Assistance Program.”

If a client is fortunate enough to secure the equivalent of a Golden Ticket that reveals the name du jour of a program a computer search takes you to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality where information is even more confusing.

There,  the webpage instructions casually drop that adjusted gross income is a factor and states that eligible vehicles “Must be certified to a federal Tier 2 Bin 5 or cleaner Tier 2 Bin standard or to a federal Tier 3 Bin 160 or cleaner Tier 3 Bin standard (see the list: model year 2017201620152014).” What?!:!

In other words, to even figure out if a person is eligible for the funds, she has to spend a significant amount of gathering data and documents.

Bear in mind that the possible clients for this program is likely to be a working mother juggling two minimum wage jobs, transportation, childcare and life. She is just trying to get by each and every day.

She does not have the luxury of spending a lot of time on the phone or sitting in offices with government employees to figure out what she needs to bring to get funds so she has reliable transportation to get to work, kids to school and to buy groceries for her family.

In doing informal research, I learned that there is almost no effort dedicated to getting this information out to social service agencies that serve clients who would benefit.

Couple that with a high rate of staff turnover in the nonprofit and public sectors, institutional knowledge about the program is lost.

For a relatively small investment by the public and/or nonprofit sectors on marketing and refining messaging, this program could make a dramatic impact on the ability of low-income workers to stay off public assistance rolls.

Professional communicators for nonprofits and governmental agencies have just as great a responsibility to communicate effectively with their clients as they do to other stakeholders, including donors, volunteers, partner agencies and voters.

Otherwise, we continue to have “a failure to communicate.”

Spokespersons are Nurtured

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By Katherine Kerr, APR

It is a rare soul who wants to grow up and be a spokesperson. However, many people are thrust into that role by necessity. If you’re fortunate, it’s because something good has happened. If something negative has happened, the experience can be downright awful.

The goal in the latter situation is to do no further harm. In other words, you want to do what is right and do what you can to protect your organization’s reputation and financial standing.

The first step is being prepared, as in the Boy Scout motto. That doesn’t mean you have a contingency plan for every possible situation. Rather it means you have a broad strategy for addressing a variety of negative scenarios.

Recently I spent a day in Washington, D.C., helping train every-day American Muslims on how to speak up for their faith. They know too well how much misinformation has been spread about their religion and how hostile members of the media have been toward people who identify as Muslims. The result has created a deep and unwarranted fear of Muslims and rampant Islamophobia.

During the workshop, I started by discussing about what and who the media are, what they want and how to “feed the beast.” We talked about the importance of responding promptly to media inquiries and about having prepared talking points to address Frequently Asked Questions (and Allegations).

I gave them a six-point rubric for addressing potential crises. We also talked about the need to remain calm, to ask for time to gather thoughts and to prepare. And, since we were in Washington, we discussed and practiced the tactic of pivoting when a question is asked in a way that doesn’t allow for a fair response.

While working through a case study, members of the group quickly realized they need to prepare for potential crises within their own communities. They can’t wait for the news vans to roll up before having a plan in place.

I divided the participants into pairs and assigned them to respond to “what ifs,” based on some real-life scenarios that had been discussed throughout the workshop. At the end of that exercise, they practiced interviewing each other using the tactics I had taught.

When the workshop concluded, each each of the individuals felt empowered to be a more effective spokesperson for their religion.

The same process can be adapted for other organizations and movements. Success depends on nurturing communications skills, personally and as a group.

Are you ready to step up as a spokesperson?


Change Pews (and Perspectives)!

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Every Sunday my curmudgeonly great uncle and my great aunt got up an hour and a half early to get the prime parking space at their church, the handicapped spot right next to the sanctuary entrance. The space one over, or two over, wasn’t good enough (we’re talking 6-8 feet for heaven’s sake!). If someone beat him to “their” space he would grumble all day.

Even worse, though, was if somebody was sitting in “their” place in “their” pew. In most churches, there are no assigned seats or reserved spots. But if you go week after week, you see the same folks sitting in the same places. And if someone new has the audacity to inadvertently sit in someone’s seat, it tends to cause a shift in the universe. Or so you would think.

The same phenomenon happens in the workplace. You see employees occupy the same seats during staff meetings. Occasionally, I would break ranks and sit on the opposite side of the table or room. Or, shift from the front to the back, or a combination of the two. That decision would cause a bit of stir, often accompanied with jokes about going to the “dark side.”

… if someone new has the audacity to inadvertently sit in someone’s seat, it tends to cause a shift in the universe. Or so you would think.

That small change would mean I’d learn that the staff member I thought was diligently responding to emails was really playing Candy Crush on her phone or checking out the latest pics of the grandkids. Or the person scribbling away wasn’t taking notes, but instead was doodling three-dimensional boxes.

Changing places not only gave me a different view in the meetings, it also gave me opportunities to build relationships with colleagues I didn’t usually sit by in these gatherings.

At professional development and networking meetings, people from the same company or agency tend to sit together at a table.

Recently I was at a professional association meeting in which five people from the same department at a company sat together at an eight-top. Other than cursory introductions, I didn’t have a conversation with any of them. Throughout the lunch they talked among themselves, which not only is rude but defeats the primary purpose of such meetings, which is to get to know other colleagues in your field.

When I supervised a staff of three (plus an intern on occasion), I had a rule that we were not to sit together at these outside meetings. We represented a nonprofit agency and our role as communicators was to increase awareness of our brand and the services we provided. Staff members understood that talking up our agency was part of their jobs at the rubber chicken lunches.

As a small business owner, I intentionally look to sit with people I don’t know so I can build my brand and seek out the types of clients I serve. Why pay for an overpriced lunch or a training session if you don’t meet new people? Making quickie introductions and exchanging cards on the way out the door is much less effective than actually getting to know someone during the program.

Why pay for an overpriced lunch or a training session if you don’t meet new people?

I heard of a pastor, who was a disrupter before the label became ubiquitous, preached in one of those multi-functional spaces where there were no pews bolted the floor. Rather, chairs were set up in rows and a pulpit rolled out to the “front” of the worship space.

One day at the beginning of the service, he rolled the pulpit to the back of the room and instructed everyone to turn their chairs around. This provided a new perspective for both the pastor and the congregants. Those who clung to the back row were now nearly face to face with the pastor. People who were normally behind certain parishioners were now in front of them. Instead of being on the right side of the room, they now had a left-side angle on the action.

Not only did the pastor shake things up, he forced people into a new way of seeing the service and created opportunities for new interactions.

I get that it is fun to catch up with your friends and is less threatening to sit with people you know. And, it can be enlightening if you choose to be bold, be smart and, despite what your parents told you, it’s okay to talk to strangers.