Of Public Engagement and Dan Yankelovich

I often scoff at those who rush to Facebook to tout the death of the latest movie star or musician, cynically believing that they are far more interested in the clicks that come with sharing an obit of a “famous person” than they are in the loss they might feel over the individual’s passing. But over the weekend, I felt a great loss reading of the passing of Daniel Yankelovich. And it is a loss the entire PR, public affairs, and marketing profession should feel.

I’ve often declared that I am a disciple of Yankelovich’s public engagement model, a process developed while he was at the Public Agenda Foundation. In reflection, I realize I am not just a disciple, but I am an evangelist. The Yankelovich model has been a centerpiece for my professional work, a way of thinking that has driven much of what I’ve done since my mentor first taught it to me nearly 20 years ago.

Many in the communications profession may be thinking and doing like Yankelovich without even knowing it. It is based on the premise that effective public – or community – engagement is more than just a one-way information system, one where the communicator continues to push out data, facts, or opinions in hopes that target audiences consume it.

No, the Yankelovich approach requires stakeholders to take specific action. It realizes true success comes by moving from informing the public to building commitment to a solution to finally mobilizing the public around specific actions.

There is a great difference between making stakeholders aware of a concern like the need properly installed car seats or improved public education or taking 10,000 steps a day to the more sophisticated level of informed public opinion necessary to reach consensus on both the problem and the possible solutions, generating a sense of urgency that ultimately leads to the action of adopting a change and integrating it into day-to-day behaviors of all involved.

The Inform-Build Commitment-Mobilize Action process can be broken down to understand the steps necessary to move through this process. Using a seven-stage model developed by Yankelovich and the Public Agenda Foundation, we can analyze the process of engaging a target audience and moving them from uninformed bystander to an action-oriented group. These stages are:

  • Becoming aware of the issues
  • Developing a sense of urgency
  • Looking for answers
  • Managing and persevering through resistance
  • Weighing choices
  • Intellectual acceptance
  • Full acceptance

In applying these seven stages to our key audiences, we must recognize that each stakeholder group may be at a different point along this continuum. Understanding this is critical to designing and implementing the appropriate tactics to move them to action. Many a plan has failed because it was based on the assumption that one size fits all audiences.

As a society, it if often easy for us to recognize there are problems in need of our attention, but many do not agree on what those problems may be or what actions might successfully address them. And, unfortunately, too many people believe that there is nothing that can be done to fix these problems. When a problem has existed for a long period of time, people stop seeing it as a problem and start seeing it as a situation.

Once individuals believe in the interpretation of the problem, they are ready to commit to a solution. That means transforming one’s mission into a call to arms to demonstrate to a variety of audiences, in dramatic and memorable ways, that these solutions are the right ones to improve efficiency and success.

Once people feel that an issue is urgent they begin to demand solutions. If we have been successful in defining the issue in our terms, it will be easier for us to state solutions convincingly. In this stage, people will demand action from a range of stakeholders. This is a good time to organize meetings to introduce specific actions that our audiences can take to help us reach our goal.

Inevitably, some people will reject the proposed solutions. This leads to the most difficult stage of the process. Some audiences will be reluctant to face and accept the trade-offs that come from choosing a specific plan of action and opponents will try to poke holes in our ideas. This resistance may be heightened by misunderstanding, narrow thinking, wishful thinking, or resistance to change. The best way to avoid this resistance is to ensure that everyone is involved in the process and that all of their concerns have been heard.

Only after pushing through this resistance can people begin to weigh their choices rationally and look to a variety of options for moving recommendations into practice. At this stage, stakeholders should feel that they have a range of choices and a reason to make them. As leaders in this process – with a special awareness of how decisions are made – we can clarify the pros and cons of each decision and allow time and opportunity for deliberation.

It is then we can mobilize for action. Changing attitudes and informing the debate is not enough. Just as a politician who has convinced 60 percent of the public to support his/her issues, but who has not succeeded in convincing them to go to the polls on Election Day, will lose the election, advocates for change or improvement cannot accomplish their goals unless supporters move from passive acquiescence to active engagement. We succeed when stakeholders are actively supporting its solutions.

Once our target audiences are engaged because they believe in the merits of our position, they will need to know what we want them to do to help accomplish these goals. So it is important that our communications and organizing efforts include specific actions that supporters can take to help us reach our goals. In addition, we will also need to make it easy and feasible for them to take these actions.

From there, many will agree that our efforts are valid and will produce desired results, but may not be willing to change their behavior or adopt the change. We must recognize that this is a temporary stage and that, with patience and continued effort, they will get there. It is important not to expect too much, too soon. The process of moving from awareness to action takes time.

Given time, incentives, and opportunities to consider their core values in light of challenges and needs, our audiences should reach the final stage of full intellectual and emotional acceptance of the importance of improving their community. Of course, different target audiences will reach these stages at different times and go through them at different rates. We may need to tailor the same event or materials to perform different functions depending on where in these stages specific members of our audience stand.

When it comes to public engagement and community change, the issues we often confront are topics as driven by emotion as they are by fact. As a result, too often, stakeholders decide that inaction is the best action, out of fear of taking a wrong step or alienating a specific group. For that reason, the Inform-Build Commitment-Mobilize Action model is one of the most effective methods to educate key audiences on the need for change and the long-term impact such efforts have on strengthening communities and nations across the globe.

Dan Yankelovich taught me all that. I am a better communicator because of it. And the engagement efforts I have led in education, healthcare, and workforce development are better for it as well.

(This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

Are We Coming for Surnames Next?

I also worry about letting our sensitivities and concerns for “what if” drive our decisionmaking. We cannot embrace free speech or assembly if we believe it only applies to those with whom we agree. We cannot embrace a free press if we do not acknowledge that includes media with stark biases that may conflict with our personal beliefs. And we cannot embrace inclusiveness if we are afraid a surname will engender concern or outrage.

From my latest on LinkedIn Pulse, exploring ESPN’s head-scratching decision to remove a broadcaster from a U.Va. football game because of his “Robert Lee” name

Some Advice for Hope Hicks 

It’s in the best interests of all communications professionals – and the nation – for new White House Communications Director Hope Hicks to succeed in her new role for the Trump Administration.

Over at LinkedIn Pulse, dear ol’ Eduflack offers some unsolicited communications advice to Hope Hicks. Hicks can take it or leave it, but it would serve her and the office well to at least consider it. 

Give it a read here

Let’s Make Political Comms Professional Again 

To put it in West Wing speak, [White House Communications Director Anthony] Scaramucci accepted the position of Toby. But he clearly wants to do C.J.’s job. And in wanting to be the public voice, and wanting to be the news, he has quickly become the devil on the other shoulder, encouraging his boss’ negative traits and enflaming distrust and fear.

We’ve devolved from President Bartlet and the West Wing to Piggy and Lord of the Flies.

Eduflack’s latest on LinkedIn Pulse 

Choosing the Kardashians Over GoT

We’ve reached the point in our society when we want every micro-action we take to have deep socio-political meaning. As Eduflack writes at LinkedIn Pulse, sometimes we need to accept that television viewing is just entertainment, and shouldn’t be seen as anything more.

We are just as guilty of this in the education space, assuming we know what makes someone tick because of their opinions on an issue such as testing, standards, choice, or teachers unions. And we then ascribe that “tick” to everything they do, from raising their kids to voting.

As I write for Pulse:

In the past decade, I’ve watched more episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians than I have segments of 60 Minutes. After reading five newspapers – The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post – each morning, there just isn’t much more I’m going to get from television news magazines.

I’ve yet to make it through an entire Rachel Maddow show, but I’ve watched plenty of RuPaul’s Drag Race. And plenty of UFC Fight Night on Fox. In short, I’m the Neilsen Ratings’ worst demographic nightmare.

Why is this important? At a time when we should be looking for commonalities and ways to bring people together, we are using more and more – including our media consumption – as ways to divide and ascribe potentially mistaken personas.

Give it a read. And if you are up for it, come catch an episode of the Kardashians or a UFC match with me. It’ll be entertaining, I promise.

Does the Media Really Need a Listening Tour?

Since the November election, mainstream media outlets have made pilgrimages to “flyover” states to better understand those millions of people who voted for Trump. Using the book Hillbilly Elegy as their Frommer’s Guide to Red America, reporters have returned with tales of low incomes, opioid abuse, American flags, and Bible verses. They’ve written how those who voted for Trump will be most negatively impacted by his policy recommendations. And they’ve questioned how such voters can remain so loyal to such a President.

In its dogged pursuit of a President, the media has, both indirectly and directly, called into question the intelligence and motives of the voters who elected him. As a result, those same voters gravitate to the media outlets they are most comfortable with. Maddow or Hannity? New York Times or New York Post? NPR or Rush? HuffPo or Breitbart?

From Eduflack’s latest on LinkedIn Plus, Do Media Really Need a “Listen to America” Tour?

 

A “Chicken Little” Political Resistance 

The Resistance is based on a negative frame, standing up against all that it sees as wrong and immoral. But it does so without putting forward a positive vision or an alternate plan. And it does so by insulting those individuals who voted the other way, attacking the very intelligence and morality of the average red voter. The Resistance is a protest movement. It makes no bones about that. But If those issues it pounds away on don’t come to fruition, it appears as much ado about nothing to those not in the protest. It is merely a group of true believers providing comfort to other true believers.

From Eduflack’s latest US News & World Report commentary, The Sky Isn’t Falling