Written by Shannon Turner, Account Executive on the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art team
I volunteer with a local nonprofit, and one of the employees asked if any of my communications courses taught me how to correspond with homeless populations. I told her no, and for the most part, it wasn’t something I could picture being taught.
As I began to think about the question in more depth, I considered all that we are taught about knowing our audience and how significant the consequences are in public relations when a key public is not being reached effectively or at all. We are taught to prioritize our segmented key publics, but what about marginal audiences? What happens when even our key publics are ignored or when our marginal audiences are further marginalized?
A public relations practitioner’s need to understand marginal publics will vary by industry, but PR in health, social justice and corporate social responsibility are only a few examples in which it is increasingly relevant for PR practitioners to be aware of marginal audiences.
Here are a few ideas to keep in mind to ensure our communication tactics aren’t further marginalizing those we should be cultivating relationships with:
- Remember ALL of your key publics.
Sometimes corporate social responsibility, which attempts to connect an organization to a cause, leaves the most affected people in the background. There are countless campaigns seeking to fund breast cancer research and promote awareness. However, these campaigns run the risk of “pinkwashing” by focusing more on pink apparel and ribbons than on making significant strides in research. Jenn Alter shared her experience of living with breast cancer with the Huffington Post.
“October is hard for breast cancer survivors as it is breast cancer awareness month. I have a problem with ‘awareness’ of this issue being sexual in nature. Memes like ‘save the boobies’ or ‘no bra day’ can be offensive and demeaning to survivors, many of whom have lost their breasts during cancer treatment. We aren’t trying to save breasts. We are trying to save our lives,” Alter said.
- Even good intentions can be poorly communicated with the wrong tactics.
In October, more than 300 billboards with the message “Blue Lives Matter” appeared across the country. While we are all affected by police brutality, this message would likely affect someone differently who has personally experienced police brutality than many who have seen it through the lens of a cell phone camera.
This play on the “Black Lives Matter” movement expresses support for police officers amid issues of race and police brutality, but is a billboard the best tactic to communicate this message?
- Research and know what’s going on.
Let’s not be PR practitioners who aren’t aware of the variety of issues around the world. Let’s not simply be informed enough to advocate for fair language that doesn’t convey hefty connotations. Imagine communicators who are not only well versed in current events but who also care enough about their key publics to understand the context and culture in which they live. This understanding is not always something that is provided in the news or a listicle. Let’s do more than enough research to understand the implications of the words and images we use.
- Be the person to ask, “Is this really our best idea?”
Recently consumers echoed, “What were they thinking?” when Bloomingdale’s released an ad with the copy, “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” It was only after negative feedback from consumers that Bloomingdale’s apologized for its “inappropriate” ad, written “in poor taste.”
- Know your message is going to reach beyond your target audience.
Every message will be interpreted, and when the audience interpreting a message is not the target audience, there is potential for the words and images we choose to have unintended consequences. One of the most prevalent publics affected by issues of sexual assault are college students, and while college students may not be Bloomingdale’s target audience, they still consumed and interpreted the ad. While we cannot possibly mitigate every possible conflict someone may have with a message, communicators have the ability to reduce the harm these interpretations can cause by considering the implications of messaging beyond a target audience.
We can always research, learn and better understand our key publics. We can also always retract our messages and apologize, but what if instead we seek to listen more than we speak?
When I followed up with the employee who asked me about communicating with homeless populations, I encouraged her to express her concerns and questions to the communicators she was working with. As PR practitioners, we may always want to have a solution. However, sometimes the best solution is to acknowledge there is a gray area in communicating complicated messages. By learning from our community and people who work with those who are often marginalized or misrepresented, we can better navigate the organizations we represent through tough topics.
Shannon Turner is an Account Executive on the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art team. She is a junior at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in public relations and hopes to pursue a career in nonprofit public relations. She is currently a marketing intern with the City of Eugene Recreation and Cultural Services and in her free time likes to try new recipes and craft projects she finds on Pinterest.
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