Too often ‘public relations’ isn’t directed at the public — it’s aimed at the segment of the population that already buys into the message. Here’s a better way to reach the audience.
Consider this a brief tutorial in marketing — how not to do it.
The takeaway here is that too often the people responsible for messaging commit a cardinal sin: They target their communications to the base, the supporters who’re already onboard, rather than addressing people still on the fence or potential supporters who are uninformed or unaware of the issues.
Now, there’s nothing wrong in connecting with the constituencies that align with any organization’s policies and positions. To roll out a classic cliché —not a good idea, by the way — talking to your constituents is the blocking and tackling of marketing.
But the measure of success for any advertising/marketing message isn’t whether it connects with the core but whether it persuades someone who isn’t onboard the bus (another cliché to avoid). There’s a lesson to be learned from the outreach activists conduct, because most of the time, the groups that are the most desperate to influence policymakers and the public make the mistake of targeting people who have already made up their minds, not the people they need to convince to advance their agenda.
Here’s a great example, an email campaign from the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, aimed at stopping construction of an oil pipeline:
“This past fall NASA scientists found a methane plume so big they thought their instruments were broken. But it was no mistake: This was America’s biggest methane cloud, a red blob over the Four Corners spewing climate-killing pollution from the region’s coalbed gas fields.”
Okay, several problems here.
First of all, methane is a colorless, odorless gas. It doesn’t form “red blobs” in the sky. Second, does the average person know where the Four Corners region is? Even people familiar with U.S. geography would have to stop and think about which states are involved. Finally, what’s a coalbed gas field? I’m guessing some people might have a vague idea, but since this is the center’s key point, it’s an egregious error to assume the phrase resonates with anyone other than a committed eco-activist.
“Now the Bureau of Land Management wants to supersize that plume with an oil pipeline whose capacity could quadruple oil and gas fracking in the region. The proposal’s 140-mile-long Piñon Pipeline and new fracking rigs would industrialize ancient cultural sites around Chaco Canyon and threaten communities and endangered species like Colorado pikeminnows and least terns.”
Once again, where the heck is Chaco Canyon? The center’s marketing staff simply assumes everyone already knows about this proposed pipeline and where it’s going to be constructed. Wrong! And if they had made clear that it’s in New Mexico, the question becomes: Do typical urban residents actually care about a pipeline running through the vast, open spaces most of us visualize when we think about the Southwest? And to believe that a significant percentage of the public knows or cares about pikeminnows and least terns is the height of hubris.
If the goal is moving the needle — another cliché to avoid — on BLM’s assessment of the pipeline, the way to get traction is to engage a far broader spectrum of people than merely the center’s cadre of dedicated eco-activists.
Marketing without meaning
Whether BLM okays the Piñon Pipeline project or not, the area around the New Mexico-Colorado border is a potential a shale-oil extraction site, and the pipeline, to be built by Colorado-based Saddle Butte LLC, would move that oil to market — as opposed to a massive fleet of tanker trucks, which the center conveniently fails to mention.
“Saddle Butte is confident that this pipeline solution will dramatically improve the safety and reliability of moving crude oil out of the area by substantially decreasing the truck traffic associated with regional production,” David Wait, the company’s chief operating officer, told the Associated Press.
By the way, Saddle Butte isn’t much better than its opponents in terms of its messaging. Take the company’s mission statement (please): “We forge collaborative relationships with our customers built on candid communications; rapid, flexibile (sic) response to changing drilling schedules and needs; and the kind of innovative problem-solving that results in effective solutions.”
That’s a veritable frozen slushy of marketing clichés: Seemingly substantive but devoid of any actual intellectual value. I mean, I like collaborative relationships, candid communications and innovative problem-solving as much as the next guy — and I love effective solutions — but why couldn’t they have included customer-centric engagement? Or world-class technology? Or being a one-stop shop for all your fossil fuel distribution needs? Or as a pipeline company, the phrase I can’t believe they haven’t already wrapped around their messaging: “We go the extra mile.”
The point being that clichés don’t cut it, whether with consumers or in the B2B marketing space.
One final point. In its email pitch above, the Center for Biological Diversity doesn’t make a viable offer to potential supporters. What I mean by that is, for taking the time to get involved, to learn about this pipeline and maybe to fire off an email to my Member of Congress — and while you’re avoiding clichés, don’t email your senator or representative; call their staff and make your point in person — I need to get something in return, and it can’t be the continued existence of pikeminnows and terns.
What the center could have done is to frame the opposition in terms of an eventual oil spill that taxpayers will have to shell out to clean up. Or, they could have made the point that most of the oil being shipped out of the Land of Enchantment is going to end up refined into gasoline for exporting to China, not for filling up American pick-up trucks.
Either sell the injustice of having to fork over a piece of your paycheck to clean up some pipeline builder’s eco-mess, or sell the outrage over sucking our oil out of publicly owned lands to hand over to Chinese opportunists. But don’t try to sell people on the health and safety of pikeminnows.
I mean, minnows? Really? I’m going to trade $2-a-gallon gasoline for a bunch of minnows?
Don’t think so.
Likewise, feeding the hungry, utilizing rangeland too arid for farming, and keeping the costs of meat and dairy products reasonable are all tangible benefits that might “sell” somebody on the idea that animal agriculture is a viable enterprise worthy of being supported.
Keep the clichés about “We handle our animals the way science says we should” inside the proverbial barn.
With the door locked.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator