So, over the holidays a friend, and perhaps my only loyal reader, emailed me some questions about the modern media environment. I was hooked. I mean, it took me two weeks to struggle out of my vacation stupor to respond, but, here it is: the first edition of Ask a Media Nerd!
Quick backstory: my friend is an urban planner by trade who works at a foundation & was recently elected to city council where she lives, in the biggest town in a county of about 250,000 in the southeast United States. Below, I’m responding to my interpretation of two questions she asked (you’ll see my summary of the question followed by her descriptive query). Question 1: How do you reach scattered audiences? Question 2: As an elected official, how can I reach my constituents? Question 1: How do you reach scattered audiences?
“My job, and the larger focus of the foundation, is to create lasting and meaningful cultural shifts in my county. We want people to be healthier…and to achieve that some serious changes must happen at so many different levels in our community. Everything from trying to coax people off the couch to walk even once a week, to helping policymakers understand the importance of things like sidewalks or bikelanes. Also convincing them and the general population that if you invest in a child 0-3 your chances of that child becoming a productive citizen are so much higher. It is my job to reach all these audiences, which include: policymakers, the business community, all citizens (which includes SO many kinds of people), early childhood orgs, school districts and school boards, active living/physical health orgs, healthcare systems, as well as our grantees and potential grantees. And there are more, I’m sure.”
Answer 1: There really isn’t a great catch-all approach anymore: you can’t just expect people to read their local newspaper or watch the 6 o’clock news. If you had unlimited funds, you could try to get your message out through an additive multi-media campaign. But, figuring that you don’t, I think it becomes incumbent upon you to really focus on honing your message. If you can design a message that people can grasp, a message that shows the worth of your programs, a message that is creative & resonates…then maybe you have a chance. I think, particularly given that you’re trying to communicate some kind of pro-social message, you have a chance at leveraging free media. If you can design a good looking, accessible, concise message, you might be able to get help getting it out there. If you’re really good, maybe you’ll catch some kind of social media buzz. The bottom line here is that you have a tough row to hoe – but good writing and design matter. A lot. They are your best weapons (other than a fat stack of Benjamins).
Question 2: As an elected official, how can I reach my constituents?
“I now represent about 12,000 people who live in my city council district. Some of whom do not have running water, some of whom are millionaires. I am trying to craft a plan to reach these people, to engage them in their community, to make them feel like they have a seat at the table. There is no go-to place for people to get that general foundation of information here anymore. Our local paper’s coverage consists of two things: sports and violence. If you look at “most read” articles on their website, 9 out of 10 are sports-related. There is an emerging online newspaper, kind of Voices of San Diego / Minn Post -style, but it is unfunded. It was created and is maintained by a volunteer, and all the writers are unpaid. It is shockingly good, considering all of those things, but they only reach a small segment of my county, not only because they are left-leaning, but because many people don’t even have dial-up service (or a computer for that matter) here. Which leads me back to my original conundrum, HOW DO I REACH ALL THESE PEOPLE?”
Answer 2: I think you actually have a fairly good option here: write a newsletter. You might be surprised to see what people will read if it’s given to them and is convenient. The success of the Metro with commuters in cities comes to mind. So does my Great Aunt Rachel who would read any commercial circular that was hung on her screen door handle. I think the great lacuna in developing local media is the lack of any ‘push’ option: to get local information in the new media environment, it has to be sought out instead of received. That’s actually a really big obstacle. I believe that there is evidence that people actually do care about their communities. If you put local info in front of them, I firmly believe they’ll consume it…They just have a hard time getting themselves to seek it – there are so many easy, free, attractive alternatives. So, give it to ’em where they live. A strange, but successful, example I can offer: a friend of my father’s is involved with the preservation of a small 19th-century mill in rural Ohio. He sends out newsletters & even though I’ve got no connection to Carroll County, Ohio, I still read the things when they end up in my hands. Why? Because they’re there & they’re kind of fun.
Templates for the layout of such a newsletter won’t be that hard to find in Word or Pagemaker. Distributing it shouldn’t cost too much – even if you use the mail. Maybe you can get the printing through your office or as a donation. Hopefully, you have some kind of budget as a councilperson. Writing it will take a little bit more time – as will figuring out the scope of the content. But, I bet you’ll be able to get some help for this project from volunteers. Using the newsletter as a platform, you can announce details of new programs – like new recycling services. You can give local non-profits a platform. You can applaud good acts of service in the community. You can provide information about issues in front of city council. To be successful, give the newsletter some personality – have a little fun. It’ll definitely be work, but if you set a reasonable goal – like 6 pages every 3 months – it doesn’t have to be too overwhelming. I don’t know that a newsletter like this will suddenly spur the rise of a Habermasian public sphere in your town – but you might find that people are a bit more informed. If you can avoid the partisan aspects of politics & focus on the town itself, I bet it can be a pretty good tool to get information out there & to spur engagement. A little information ‘subsidy’ could go a long way in what is otherwise a vacuum. And, hey, it might even help with your name recognition when reelection time rolls around!