Patrick George and Erynne Jones
Patrick George and Erynne Jones co-authored this article.

As public affairs professionals, engaging the public often means casting a net wide enough that most of the intended audience has a strong chance of being impacted.

But the big net isn’t always the right approach when the client’s goal is Hard-to-Reach populations. Those populations include members of minority groups, undocumented or immigrant populations, those lacking adequate literacy skills, residents of rural areas, the homeless, the physically- and neuro-diverse, and individuals in vulnerable social and economic situations. Many times, individuals within these subgroups may fall into multiple categories.

Traditional means of outreach fail to resonate with, or even reach, many HTR populations. And when the client’s objectives are related to public health, education, emergency preparedness, or social issues, successfully communicating with these groups is critical — not only to achieve the client’s short-term public relations goals, but to ensure long-term impact of their initiatives.

When the vulnerable, remote, disenfranchised or socially excluded are not reached through public education/awareness initiatives, marginalization increases. Worse, this void institutionalizes inequality.

In California, the most diverse state according to a 2018 analysis and the first large majority-minority state as of the 2000 Census, HTR populations are a critical audience for public awareness campaigns for many reasons, including socio-economic dynamics. If HTR audiences aren’t reached regarding the importance of the California Census 2020 and avoid being counted, for example, the state risks losing federal matching funds for important public programs upon which some of these populations depend.

In our work with education, energy and public health clients, we’ve learned to put the “wide net” aside and use a specialized approach with HTR populations, from program design and implementation, to its conclusion. The following guiding principles can be used across a variety of HTR audiences to achieve maximum impact:

Invest time and resources into understanding the audience. Just as communications to individual stakeholder groups are nuanced and varied, so should messaging and outreach be for individual HTR audiences. As the campaign begins, practitioners should create a landscape assessment of former HTR outreach initiatives, carefully considering what worked and what didn’t. An analysis of existing barriers and resources that can be used to improve outreach efforts in reaching these communities can help identify targeted solutions.

Engage target populations throughout the process. Distinct cultural and linguistic factors impact how communications are “received” by HTR audiences, by whom those audiences are influenced and what specifically leads to behavior change. An assumption that simply disseminating information will lead to this change for niche audiences is a recipe for failure. Rather than flying blind, involve stakeholders in the planning process early and often. This ensures messages are tailored to and resonate with the communities being targeted. Use focus groups to ensure that messaging is on track, placed effectively, and accurate, appropriate and sensitive.

Too often, agencies view “minority outreach” as a throwaway tactic, believing materials translated into another language are adequate. Instead, translation should be done using a translation company (rather than relying on an online translation tool) and tested among focus groups to ensure messaging gets across as intended. Materials should be ADA-compliant and available for individuals that may have a disability, using appropriate auxiliary aids and services such as large print, braille, or closed captioning. Language should be simple and easy to understand, including translated materials, and should incorporate the use of visuals when possible.

Leverage existing networks. Certain populations are called “hard-to-reach” for a reason. Focus on reaching HTR audiences where they “live/play/work/pray.” The best way to do that is through trusted networks within those communities. For example, we partner with community based organizations such as faith-based groups and community centers and enlist key opinion leaders to serve as champions. Information can be better disseminated by arming navigators with tailored talking points, op-eds and community events, as well as providing customizable toolkits that community groups can use in their own outreach efforts.

Keep it simple. Keeping messages simple with straightforward, actionable steps helps ensure impact. Before embarking on a campaign, take inventory of the tools and resources that target stakeholders use regularly. Make sure participation is easy for the target audience and that tools are readily available to help participants understand the process. This includes mobile-friendly web-based applications, social media outreach, on-demand videos, printed materials, telephone support, dedicated inboxes and community events in public forums.

Assess, don’t guess. Results in public awareness and education campaigns are more challenging to quantify than in, say, awareness of the Widget Company, success for which can be measured by increased widget sales. And public awareness campaigns take time; after all, they’re intended to guide audiences from Point A (awareness) to Point B (behavior change). Goals should be set early and in close alignment with the client. Depending on the campaign, assessment could include measuring institutional diffusion, such as the numbers of media outlets/community groups/individuals who agreed to distribute information; quantitative tracking for content resonance, including content viewed or shared across key platforms; and contextual factors, such as long-term commitment from HTR representatives or allocation of community resources to the campaign’s sustainability.

Importantly, measurement should occur at regular, multiple intervals during the campaign. If the assessment suggests the campaign is missing its mark, tactics can quickly be adjusted to meet objectives.

Just because an audience is less accessible doesn’t mean its members should remain powerless and isolated. There’s an urgent and pressing need to better deliver important information to HTR audiences, and we can help do that through collaboratively designed and creatively implemented PR campaigns, taking into account the unique needs and values of the groups we wish to reach.


Patrick George is a managing director at KP Public Affairs. Erynne Jones is a director at KP Public Affairs.