Connect with customers off-line through PR and community outreach

History Smiths

Finally, after years of being looked down upon because we couldn’t always quantify 100% the return on investment for public relations and community outreach activities, we professionals who know this stuff works can now, gleefully, say, “I told you so!” And it feels great.

Here’s what we know.

“Direct sales” through advertising and traditional marketing just doesn’t work any more. People are too smart, too skeptical, and too connected to the Internet.

In fact, the same American Marketing Association study that found 40% of Americans polled in 2001 relying on advertising to make consumer decisions saw that number drop in 2004 to 14%. What is that number today? Less than 5%?

As a result, businesses have jumped on the social media wagon and everyone is doing what they can online to “make friends” with consumers. Yes, there are all kinds of ways to personalize emails, Tweet from a “real person,” Facebook “directly” from a company president – I get that, I do it too, and in many cases these ARE real people reaching out and they do it very well. They do achieve some level of emotional connection, and they do it on a very large scale. I get that.

But for businesses whose customers are drawn from their local community, it’s just not the same thing as making an in-person, eyeball-to-eyeball connection.

Enter PR and community outreach.

As smart as people are about being “sold to,” many can also figure out when media outlets are publishing self-serving company news releases. Instead, a whole lot of us would like, for once, to deal with business people who are honest and real.

One very effective way for businesses to reach people “off-line” is by becoming involved in their local history and preservation community. People who live in historical communities care deeply about their history. “Lifers” are rabidly protective of it. “Newcomers” sometimes even more so. Frankly, by helping to preserve town history you honor the choice people have made about where to live.

When you or members of your staff serve on a preservation project committee, join the historical society board, fund a school curriculum on local history, or staff a historical event, you interact with customers NOT as company staff out to make a sale, but as people who share a common interest or concern. I like to say that you are getting to people “where they live” emotionally by helping to preserve where they live physically.

In my years working in the preservation community, in the history community, and as a fundraiser and public relations professional, I have seen this dynamic play out over and over again.

People equate “history” with stature and credibility. Your PR staff will have endless stories to tell about your work in the historical community, endless opportunities to make connections with individuals and organizations, and endless ways to collaborate, link, co-sponsor, host, and celebrate.

Yes, this “in the trenches” work takes staff time and it’s labor intensive. But this stuff pays off.

An example.

I can’t help but think about the construction of Armory Memorial Park at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. They had a business problem: How to get people on board with the project, raise funds for the opening ceremony, and have the opening be a real “win.”

At the time, there were very hard feelings in Salem because the last remaining wall of the burned-down Salem Armory had to be removed to make way for the park. The Armory had been a regional gathering place for generations, and while the park was designed to honor the county’s 400+year military heritage it was hard for many people to see that last wall go down.

No amount of advertising in the world would have swayed public opinion in favor of the park for some. And so, I spent many months meeting with people, forming an advisory committee (including naysayers), involving regional veterans groups and historical societies, disseminating stories about what we were doing – you name it. Representing the museum, I put my face and my reputation – including as a historian – on the project as I connected with people throughout the county.

By the time the park opened – and our partnership with the Massachusetts National Guard certainly helped! – not only was everyone on board but the head of the opposition made a point of shaking my hand and saying, “Well done. This is a beautiful park.”

This is not to toot my own horn, but to provide a compelling example of how PR and community outreach achieved what no amount of advertising EVER could have done.

What is your business problem?

• Attracting customers?

• Securing their loyalty?

• Letting people know you exist?

• Overcoming an incorrect perception?

I suggest that becoming part of your historical community, really “getting in there” and really connecting with people, will pay off.

Sincere community outreach, coupled with smart PR activities, works.