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5 Reasons Why Your Campaign Can Fail

Happy Earth Day.

Aldo Leopold, father of wildlife management and of our American wilderness system – conservationist, forester, and educator – was convinced early in his career that “if the public were told how much harm ensues from un-wise land use, it would mend its ways”.

Years later Leopold understood he was wrong because he had assumed (1) people were listening (or can be made to listen); (2) the public can be made to respond to fear of harm; and (3) mending could be accomplished without major changes in the public itself.

How many examples of an issue can you share that failed … because proponents were confident the merits of the issue would carry the day?   Background checks come to mind?

A 1947 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly (Hyman and Sheatsley) identified 5 major reasons why information-based campaigns fail:

  1. There exists a hard core of chronic ‘know-nothings’, who are difficult to reach no matter what the effort.  Devoting time to this segment of a community wastes what few resources we have that otherwise might make a difference elsewhere.
  2. Large groups of people have no interest in public issues.  By collecting, organizing and distributing information with no strategic focus in mind we won’t meet our goals.  We have to talk to people about what they care about … which is rarely science.
  3. People seek information that agrees with their existing attitudes.  Absent strategy and a communications plan that segments audiences and measurable objectives, we’ll satisfy those who are with us, and fortify those who are against us … and maintain (or even strengthen) the status quo.
  4. People perceive & absorb the same information differently.  Absent a strategic communications plan, organizing information – for example, a regional water quality assessment simplified in a pamphlet for laypersons – will not move a campaign forward.
  5. Information alone does not change peoples’ behaviors. Thicker and more numerous three-ringed binders are no more effective in changing attitudes than the first binder that hit the public’s desk. 

Look closely at the first 4 reasons.  It is clear 3 of them have to do with listening, and suggest that by listening, by using the opportunities to collect information about our publics’ wants and priorities and to better understand their points of view, we can involve more diverse publics …. and develop more successful campaign activities accordingly.       

I can always count on reason # 5 when working with information experts and scientists, and I hear experts and scientists affirm with increasing frequency that “we should start from the place [the public] is coming from”, or “we should start from their point of view”.   Do they get it, or is this just the flavor of the month? Because it’s not a new idea … Henry Ford said it 100 years ago:

“The key to success is understanding the other person’s point of view”

What is missing is the discipline to do so – and that’s where true public relations and the social sciences can play instrumental roles in helping organizations and institutions use their information effectively, persuasively, and in doing so create lasting change to protect our air, our water and our land.



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