the campaign is not dead

Is the campaign dead? Should we not think about what we do 52-weeks a year? Or is there merit in shining a light on an issue?

by GUEST EDITOR Emma Rodgers

A while ago, top blogger and US Public Health specialist Jim Garrow wrote a post on ‘death to the campaign’. 

In it he talks about campaign focussed communications working against our aim of affecting real change for two reasons:  

- it assumes an audience is there waiting to receive messaging.
- it ends with nothing after it.

It was re-published again recently and it motivated me to write a response. While I don’t disagree with anything that Jim says, I don’t think it’s always as black as white as this and that the campaign should be binned as a result.

So here are my thoughts on the campaign through the eyes of a ‘Campaigns Officer’ [the clue of where I’m going with this is in the job title] at a large rural local authority. Also just to be clear, I’m not talking specifically on Public Health campaigns [which I believe Jim was] here, I’m talking about more wider campaigns on all kinds of issues, from raising awareness of carers funding to carers to promoting jobs and growth or taking staff through transformation change.  

It’s moved the conversation on

Using campaigns within our organisation, I believe has really moved the communications conversation on. Like many other teams, we were often asked ‘can we have a leaflet’ or told ‘we need a press release? ‘ Taking a focused campaigns approach allows us to have a more strategic conversation about what is really important with people in the organisation with the overall aim of making a difference to the lives of residents.

This campaign conversation is firmly based in insight – for example what are people telling us? what do we know already? who else do we need to work with?  Adapting these techniques and working more closely with senior officers and cabinet members to agree a year plan for campaigns which are aligned with the organisation, county’s and resident’s priorities has really started to pay off. It also means we can strategically push back on those crazy requests for a video that only 12 people were ever going to watch because we can demonstrate a compelling reason not to.

Try and go to where the people are

This insight based approach has also allowed us to make sure we go where people are, rather than ‘broadcasting’ and keeping everything crossed in the hope they’ll respond or as Jim calls it ‘assuming the audience is there, placid and interested’. We know things change quickly so we’ll regularly check out what we think we know about our residents to see if it does still stack up. For example, we regularly engage with young people through our campaigns, whether it’s about jobs and growth opportunities or alcohol. So we’re asking them – who do they engage with, who are their main influencers, what social media do they use. We’re doing this via people who are in contact with them everyday – youth groups,  theatre groups, or where young people go.

Getting this information allows us to look at how we can engage better, whether it’s through a campaign or another channel. It’s about reflecting, tailoring and adapting.  Sounds basic but it is really helping us get better at waht we do. And in all honesty, I know it probably isn’t likely that we would have taken the time out to understand who we were communicating with before when it was just for a ‘leaflet’.  

Check understanding

Our campaign approach means we work with the people that we want to engage with so that they can help shape what we’re doing. For example with our adoption campaign, we surveyed the last 100 people who had contacted us to adopt to find out  what’s important to them when thinking about adoption and what motivated them to make that web enquiry or pick up the phone. We complemented this with more in-depth research from focus groups and we also spoke to social workers and other care experts to hear first- hand the views of the children waiting to be adopted. Doing this meant we could design a campaign through ‘a child’s eyes’ that really appealed to adopters and could help us reach some of the very stretch targets being set for all local authorities on adoption recruitment and most importantly to find more stable homes for children quicker.

Campaigns designed ‘with’ people not for

We also ask residents, partners or experts in their field to work with us to design campaigns so that they have more resonance and relevance with the people we’re aiming to engage with.  For the next phase of our alcohol campaign, young people have designed #fail animations for other young people in the county. They’re going to help us by ‘spreading the word’ and we’re also worked closely with national organisations such as the Alcohol Education Trust and Drink Aware.  

This approach does  pay off, for our fostering and supported lodgings campaigns [which has just won a Guardian excellence in communications award], we were able to give an average return of £52 for every £1 spent and beat the year’s targets for foster care recruitment in just a couple of months. This was because we targeted people who’d been in certain careers and who we knew had the right experience to make great foster carers. It ultimately meant more children in care were placed in stable homes quicker than ever before.

Evaluation is king    

Taking a strategic campaigns approach means we regularly evaluate as we go along and can revise something if we know it’s not working or build on it if we know it does. Don’t get me wrong, this is something all good communications should do but before it was all too easy to jump onto the next issue without building this time in. Now it’s a given and helps us to build momentum and relationships as we go.

It’s not always easy – it’s sometimes tough to really work out whether you’ve made that difference to people and helped to make a behaviour or perception change. I approached a major central public sector organisation recently to ask them if they’d work with us to make our evaluation better. Frankly their response just didn’t stack up. They said there was only two measures they’d be willing to look at – neither of which made sense for the age range we were engaging with. It just makes us more determined to keep trying to find that measure that does work.       

So what happens at the end?

Campaigns for me are intense bursts of integrated communications. They ultimately have an end point but in my opinion, it’s not that all communications stop at this set point. The campaign information and call to action is still there and relevant and we’ll still continue to talk and engage with the same people  in various ways so that we don’t leave them ‘hanging’ as Jim suggests.  It’s also about us continuing to think of better and more creative ways to engage with residents and not lose sight of the opportunities that movement towards behaviour change brings.  

And finally

There are always pros and cons to every communications approach and I’m not saying campaigns are the ‘be all and end all’. People, organisations and society are complex and organic and you can’t segment life into categories or assume people are just a ‘parent’ or ‘student’ or ‘older person’ in splendid isolation.  Yet campaigns for us have meant that we do consider people more in the round than we ever did before and that we do learn more about where they’re coming from.  

We still have major pieces of work that aren’t traditional campaigns, for example ongoing transformation culture change but they  do follow the same tried and tested approach of using insight, setting aims and objectives, implementing and evaluating what’s been done.  

I also work for a large organisation – this may not even come close to the experience of lone comms professionals up and down the country or those in smaller communications teams so I’m in no way suggesting one size does fit all.

But I am putting it out there that I believe campaigns can and do continue to work. Yes they do have to be part of an overall well managed communications strategy but they are I think still a top tool to have in the old communications toolkit.  

It’s all subjective of course and I know this is likely to change as the conversation, and relationship, between citizens and local government accelerates in these tough times.  But all I’d say is don’t write them off just yet.

Emma Rodgers is senior campaigns officer at Staffordshire County Council.  

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