Making It Count
In a world where misinformation and mistrust are rampant, how do you increase U.S. Census participation among people who have privacy and confidentiality concerns, a fear of repercussions and a general distrust of government?
Our agency faced this question as we began developing the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) 2020 census campaign to reach the state’s historically undercounted populations.
Detroit-based integrated marketing firm MCCI, in collaboration with MNA, started planning for the 2020 census in 2017 — three years before census forms were distributed. Our two-phase campaign had two respective goals: earn the trust of the historically undercounted populations across Michigan to encourage them to complete the 2020 census, and debunk myths and alleviate concerns that would stand in the way of census participation.
These were lofty goals, but important ones with high stakes. Michigan risked losing millions of dollars in federal support for programs that would be funded by 2020 census data. Our objective was to meet or exceed the 2010 census self-response rate.
Over the years, the U.S. Census has missed counting disproportionate numbers of ethnic and minority groups, immigrants, children and those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness — the historically undercounted populations. This has led to inequality in government funding.
Educating and engaging the historically undercounted populations meant relying on the help of others, namely local nonprofits and other trusted organizations in the communities. We needed to work directly with these trusted messengers who would show the historically undercounted populations how their participation in the census is safe and secure, and how it directly benefits themselves and their communities.
The first phase of our campaign was launched in 2018 and leveraged the influence of nonprofit community organizations throughout Michigan. We built a microsite, BeCountedMI2020.com, and developed educational materials for nonprofits to share with their constituents.
In January 2020, we launched a statewide consumer-facing campaign with 23 distinct media (various advertising, social and digital media, media relations and other communications) that reached the historically undercounted populations in the places where they lived and worked. A new consumer-focused microsite, MIVoiceCounts.org, included the census questions so people could see ahead of time what the census asks. This addressed misinformation about what personal information would be asked. (After Census Day on 1 April, we shifted our call to action in paid and earned media from the MIVoiceCounts.org site to the U.S. Census site.)
Not long after the census went live to participate online, by phone or mail, we began to see results. In just a few months, Michigan was the first in the nation to reach its 2010 census self-response rate. When we finished our campaign 30 June 2020, Michigan was fourth in the nation in census self-response rates.
Going for the Gold
Inspired by our results, we decided to apply for the Gold Quill Award. We are proud to earn the award, which celebrates the success that MNA and our campaign had on encouraging the historically undercounted populations to fill out the census.
If you are considering applying for a Gold Quill, here are a few tips:
- Start the process early. We needed to gather a lot of data — including a few references and statements from colleagues.
- Follow the directions carefully. That includes font size and entry length.
- Keep in mind your objectives, goals, strategies and tactics and where they fall within the requirements of the submission. Be sure to state them in the goals/objectives and implementation/challenges sections of the work plan, and refer back to them in the measurement/evaluation section.
- Take time to review the judges’ feedback. This is an incredible opportunity to learn from some of the best communicators in the industry.
- Remind yourself that hard work pays off. Writing, revising and rewriting an entry can take time and patience, but the end result is worth it. It taught us to evaluate — and re-evaluate — our work, and that only helps us become stronger, more confident communicators.
Rich Donley and Michelle Franzen Martin
Rich Donley, APR, is president at MCCI. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or +1.313.481.4700. Michelle Franzen Martin is an account director at MCCI. You can reach her at email@example.com or +1.313.481.4700.