Not long ago, O’Brien Communications began to provide assistance to a nonprofit organization centered on marking a major anniversary of a historical event. To avoid creating any confusion on the PR issues at play, for now I won’t name the project or get into its specifics.
It’s more important to explore the situation and the process because the communications challenges this nonprofit faces are some of the most common challenges most organizations face. If you are involved with any communications initiative, there is a very good chance you will face some of the same challenges.
More specifically in this case, the general public’s knowledge of the historical event is extremely low. Because of that, any effort to generate awareness around the anniversary will require enough knowledge of the history for the people to want to know more and then remember.
For this reason, we must keep top of mind when planning any communications initiative, if people don’t know, they won’t care. To get them to care, we must educate.
A Little Background
Let’s look at the situation. The communications program will mark the 100th anniversary of an event that took place overseas. The anniversary will be commemorated here and elsewhere. This means that the public will participate in activities and events that are remote to them in both time and distance.
In a digital era where last week’s news is a distant memory and last year’s news is now considered historical record, looking back and caring about events that happened 100 years ago is an increasingly difficult challenge.
Still, those who are already familiar with this history can at times have trouble understanding why others don’t seem to care or want to pay attention.
That’s where a step-by-step communications strategy comes in.
Before you can expect someone to care, he or she must have some working knowledge. The catch is that to gain the knowledge, they must care enough or have enough incentive to want to know, to want to ask questions, to want to learn. This is critical because it shapes the educational process that ultimately is the foundation for all communications activities.
Step One – Educate
The first step is to educate, and that means reaching out to those with at least a casual knowledge of and interest in the history. They are your base. Create events, communications programs and channels to engage them, to expose them to new information presented in an interesting and compelling way. This means making many of the lessons of history relevant and by telling them in story form. People love stories.
Step Two – Conduct outreach
Once you’ve begun to connect with your most qualified audience, the next step is to conduct outreach to stakeholders that may demonstrate a natural interest in the subject matter, if not the actual history. Again, use events, programs and channels to engage. Oftentimes, these are the same channels you’ve used to start your program, only modified and customized to appeal to a broader audience.
Step Three – Don’t get caught in the weeds
The term is synonymous with not letting smaller details, interpretation of them or even disputes among experts over the details of the history to detract from the current efforts to conduct positive outreach, education and engagement among the uninformed. The solution here is to build outreach efforts on those facts and details on which most everyone can agree, or those details that are commonly accepted as fact.
Step Four – Get out there
Once you have the foundation in place, you can expand on your initial communications, and work to keep the momentum going with smaller events and activities that build to larger commemorative events around the time of the anniversary. Tap into current-day interest in trends, culture, current events and even entertainment.
In our case we’re going to do all of the above, and seek a good balance between entertainment, education and social elements. The mix is important because too much of one approach does not serve the larger goal of tastefully and respectfully marking a very important anniversary. Tied to this, the purpose of celebrating the anniversary in the first place is to ensure that a significant period in history is not lost on current and future generations.
If you’re planning a communications program where the subject matter is dry – technical, historical, etc. – your challenges will be very similar. You will need to find a way to get people to care enough to want to know more, and only then can you realistically seek their engagement.
It all starts with your base, and with education.