The power to move people

...without it, your organisation cannot succeed

by Gail White. This report on the use of public relations was written for cause-based NGOs. Businesses considering greater community involvement, especially via association with a cause, may also find it thought provoking.

The power of public opinion

Public opinion: it humbles presidents, topples regimes and turns unknowns into global celebrities. It can create, it can destroy – and most often, most cuttingly, it can ignore.

No organisation can achieve any worthwhile objective unless it can get people to pay attention, to agree – and to act.

Whether it's fund raising or social change, you must reach people's hearts.

And the most important influence on what people think and do is not advertising or even the media. It's what they hear other people say. Public opinion.

Public Relations means influencing public opinion

No matter how small or under-funded, your organisation can influence public opinion.

The nuts and bolts of doing it usually go under the heading Public Relations. People hear "Public Relations" and they think of press releases and smiling until your face aches.

In fact, most public relations companies spend no more than half their time on media work. And when they're face to face with people who can change things, as often as not it's really tough negotiation they're involved in.

Dolphin campaign pressured multi-nationals where it hurt

The community-based campaign for dolphin-safe tuna fishing, for example, didn't persuade major brands to adopt expensive new fishing practices by offering them canapes.

This campaign won important victories by building strong community support and translating that support into consumer boycotts. Then it negotiated directly with key manufacturers and emphasised the market advantage they could gain over competitors who continued to kill dolphins. It attacked, divided and conquered. Fortunately not every public relations campaign has to be that brutal.

Salvos built esteem face to face

The Salvation Army has an immensely powerful image as a charity: recently it's been bolstered by outdoor advertising, but its bedrock is the army of determined collectors fronting people in pubs. People who might have at the backs of their minds that the only difference between them and a Salvo client is a few more drinks. That's how the Salvos have built such strong emotional bonds with a large part of their support base and it's got nothing to do with media.

Non-media PR: going direct to people

That's why I want to focus on the non-media aspects of Public Relations, rather than the media component.

What's in it for supporters?

The first, essential component of any attempt to influence other people, to gather their support, to encourage action, is to look at the situation from their point of view.

Imagine you are them and ask yourself, Why should I care?

What's in it for me?

The answers are very encouraging

You'll often hear media and marketing people talking about the increasing cynicism of our society.

What they mean is, people are starting to reject their outrageous advertising lies, to question their posturing and to challenge their one sided presentation of reality.

When an advertising executive refers to consumer cynicism, what he most probably really means is, "In the good old days I would say, this product will make you happy and you'll be beautiful and live forever, and people would buy it. Now they just don't believe me."

Cynicism is born of corrupt officials and institutions exposed and of media reports that are one-sided or over-blown.

Cynicism doesn't mean people won't respond to a worthwhile proposition, it just means that you have to demonstrate genuine value.

What's in it for me?

Most people want to know what's going on in their community. They want to be involved with other people and feel that they are a part of something. They want to make a difference. They actually respect people who do make a difference.

And, the greatest miracle of humanity, their hope for these things rebounds no matter how often it's knocked down and how many cynical words they mouth themselves.

If what you do is worthwhile, if your organisation makes a difference, then you have a value proposition that most people will be interested in.

Say to these people: this is what we do that makes a difference. This is how making a difference benefits the people who support us.

Say: this is who we are, this is what we're trying to do, and we'd like you to lend us a hand.

Then they will respond.

People do respond

When an organisation is not connecting with people it's easy to say: people don't care, there are no volunteers, the money is just not there.

In 2000, one in three Australian adults reported they had performed some voluntary work in the preceding 12 months, and that excludes work for the Olympics/ParaOlympics. And the figure is rising – it was up from 24% in 1995 (ABS survey figures).

Most people donate to causes (in the Glide Charities Survey 2000 less than 2.5% of respondents asserted they never gave; 75% reported giving at least once every three months.)

Take a look around you. Australian society relies on charities to support hundreds of thousands of people who fall through the net. There are never enough resources to do everything, but what does get done is on a scale to rival many governments.

Sport and recreation is volunteer dependent, people have responded to the need.

And not for profit organisations are creating social change in Australia: often they are more relevant to popular values and command greater direct loyalty than governments.

Get your house in order

Don't blame the public for being apathetic; the majority are not. Look instead at your message and how you are presenting it.

A lack of public support for an organisation is always a reflection on the organisation, or how it has connected with the public.

Swallow your pride and self-certainty and take a critical look.

Who are you?

The first step to changing public opinion about your organisation is to find out who you are.

You may know what you want your organisation to be, but it's not up to you alone: it's also up to your client group, their families and friends, professional service providers, financial supporters, the people who work in your organisation, and the public.

Who you are is determined by all these stakeholders. You can't tell them what you are, they have to tell you. And they have to not merely accept but help drive any change.

Unity of identity

Organisations can encompass a wide range of opinion, but disunity of identity is crippling.

If your various stakeholders are pursuing conflicting agendas or have discordant values, the organisation will not be able to lead public opinion.

When their members have a unity of purpose and strong vision, organisations can achieve great things.

Most organisations could improve their public relations by improving their internal unity. It's a dynamic you should never stop working on.

Look at your management

Just because your goals are worthy doesn't mean your organisation is.

Not for Profits, like Governments, companies and police forces, do best when they are open, inclusive and accountable.

Think of the NFPs which you know which have recently been damaged by scandal, including for example churches and aged care providers.

Were they open?

Were they inclusive?

Were they accountable?

Many NFPs need work in this area.

Expressing identity

When you know who you are, define it in a way that can easily be communicated to others.

You may need a logo, a slogan, a mission statement, a policy document, a brochure about the organisation and even a background media kit.

When these documents clearly embody what your volunteers, clients, management and other stakeholders want, you've made the first important step to being a public opinion leader.

Identify your audience

You'll never have the resources to tell the world. So focus on a group that means the most to you – that you do have the resources to deal with effectively. Define an audience you can reach at least four times a year.

Your group might be geographically local, it might be defined by special interests, by church affiliation, by occupation or by personal values. For example, if you were raising funds for a literacy program, your target might include teachers and journalists.

Are you ready to tell the world?

A unified, open organisation with a strong vision is ready to tell its message to the world. It has a PR task to do, to move it into an expanded community role.

Society wants leadership like that.

PR Strategies

If one day a Not For Profit came to me with a couple of million dollars to build an image, I might daydream about a McDonald's style media blitz with 95% warm-fuzzy brand recognition.

I hope I would also quickly reject the idea. A media blitz is the fastest way to build awareness – of the kind that can crash as fast as it was built.

A media blitz is a poor way to build positive community attitude and emotional bonds.

A media blitz is also the riskiest of available strategies, able with one accidental twist to deliver deeply negative outcomes.

The most reliable way to build the most solid image is by direct community contact.

Building community

How do you do that?

Never in just one way. Your strategy mix must reflect your organisation. But there are some key elements every NFP should embrace.

Contact other groups

Contact other groups with similar or compatible goals, and share with them where you can. Ask if you can send a representative to their meetings and functions, and invite them to yours.

Perhaps you can make formal agreements and policy statements on common objectives. Mention them in your newsletter and contribute items to theirs.

Donate an annual trophy or prize for them to award to one of their volunteers, to show that you value the work done – even if it wasn't done for you.

Most likely the competition between you and similar organisations is far less important than the competition between you and other, unrelated groups who are also seeking attention and support.

Remember this: people hate disunity. If two organisations serving one client group are bickering, support for both organisations and for the cause will fall. And conflict, incidentally, is far and away the easiest way to get media attention – negative, destructive attention.

Be active in your sector

Send representatives to any umbrella or industry groups even vaguely relevant. Plug yourself in. Person to person connections are the absolute foundation of lasting public esteem.

Joint project with other groups

Look for other organisations you can work with directly, for the pursuit of some goal.

For example, when I was with the Kidney Foundation I worked with doctors, nurses and patient support groups to define common goals and collaborate on strategies. I also worked with Aboriginal organisations to tackle the high incidence of kidney disease in their communities.

We worked together and forged bonds of understanding and respect that boosted the public standing of all our organisations. Our organisations consequently cooperated in other, mutually supportive ways. We all benefited and so did the community.

Extend your client reach

Look closely at your clientele. Look to see if you are excluding anyone, not deliberately of course, but simply by not providing appropriate services or by not reaching out.

When I was at the Association for the Blind, one of my most rewarding involvements was an outreach program to remote Aboriginal groups. Our mission was to help people with vision impairment, but a group of people with vision impairment –€“ and real need of help – had been beyond our reach both geographically and in terms of culturally appropriate services. Reaching out to this group extended our client base, fulfilled our mission, increased our public standing and connected us to many other community organisations.

It's too easy for an organisation itself to become demographically homogenous, and that leads to an inward-looking, clean hands attitude, reducing relevance and declining public esteem.

If you've got a mission, get your hands dirty pursuing it. Public opinion respects real work.

Look to business

Next, look to business. I'm not talking about sponsorship here but about shared goals that extend your organisation's real community involvement.

Businesses are an essential part of community, they're the source of our wealth and they're where most people spend the greater part of their waking lives. Businesses are owned and staffed by real people: people who mostly want to do good and make a difference

Target businesses that are geographically local to you, and any that are related by function or client group. For example, if your clients have regular legal issues, keep in touch with law firms and associations. The same for medical issues – hospitals, manufacturers, pharmacies. Sporting bodies – equipment manufacturers, other leagues.

Invite business representatives to your functions, to your meetings. Dream up joint projects "your" businesses can take up, which will get them involved and give them a little credibility, while benefiting your client group. Appropriate firms might redesign products for disabled use or create new products that cater to particular needs.

If you're trying to change business policies or attitudes, put some real effort into working together. Even when you have conflict, you can still work together. Think of the North Ireland peace process.

Form joint working parties to look for cost effective solutions. Break the big, insurmountable problem down into small bits and tackle them. Agree to differ, but not to stop talking. Keep engaged.

Look to your local community

Target your local community too. Go to ratepayers meetings, school meetings, as an official representative of your group. Make sure your local government officials know your organisation and are kept informed. This involvement demonstrates your community concern and builds contacts and respect.

Government Relations

Don't forget government –€“ local, state and federal. Find out who your relevant ministers, mayors and councillors are.

Develop an ongoing information campaign that deals specifically with them and their staff. It might include regular newsletters, invitations (even if they are never accepted), attendance at their events and (when you have a real need or issue) meeting with them in person, perhaps via delegation.

These people are important because they influence what other people think and because they can (often in ignorance) make laws which hurt your cause, or pay too much attention to some other organisation which has been lobbying them.


There will probably be other key "influencers" in your sphere. Perhaps education or public health authorities, perhaps police or officials of trade or professional associations, perhaps community leaders.

Even if they are the enemy, engage them. You'll earn a bit of respect, you'll raise your profile –€“ you may even achieve some of your goals.

Use your clients

Your clients may not want media exposure but, if you've helped them, most will want to put back in some way. They can do that by telling others about you.

Sometimes it may just be a matter of asking them to tell others – so they know you value that sort of support. Most often it will help if you give them the tools to tell others: brochures, maybe even examples of things to say to promote your organisation.

Certainly you should try to keep in contact with all your past clients via newsletters, invitations and publications. Some of them may even become volunteers themselves.

Use your staff, members and volunteers

Most organisations under-utilise the resource of their own people.

Will they be roving evangelists for your cause? Give them tools, of course. Perhaps brochures, maybe badges, bumper stickers, or things they can sell, which serve as conversation starters. Involve, inform and encourage them.

If the people who know you best won't put in a good word for you, go back to the beginning of this presentation and take a proper look at yourself.