Recent research I undertook on behalf of a major Australian corporate underlined how effective intelligent sponsorship can be for increasing positive brand mentions in regional and suburban print media. It’s a much harder slog to generate this sort of coverage in metro and/or broadcast media, however. School education communication can also be a boon for engaging the community.

Effective public relations with school students

[This is the final post in a six-part ‘case study’ series on devising communication strategy for an infrastructure project, but can also be applied to non-infrastructure-related initiatives.].

For the development of infrastructure that has a major local community profile, it is a default that sponsorship is considered. There are factors to bear in mind, however, in its application.

For instance, in the case of publicly funded infrastructure, the issue of using taxpayers’ money to fund community initiatives needs to be seriously reflected upon:

  • Why should taxpayers who will gain no direct (or even collateral) benefit from the infrastructure contribute to the sponsorship of initiatives in infrastructure-specific geographic areas?
  • Many of the groups relevant to sponsorship are also able to gain government funds directly themselves – getting sponsorship money from taxpayers can be, in effect, double-dipping.

The purpose of the sponsorship is to raise awareness of the infrastructure and the organisation undertaking it, as well as improving their reputation and brand equity, as well as use sponsorship as a means of being socially responsible. This latter dimension includes doing work in the community that exemplifies the values of the organisation and isn’t necessarily being done for kudos. Yes, a delicate and sometimes seemingly paradoxical practice!

One dimension of communication particularly relevant to sponsorship is the notion of brand vs. reputation.

The two are interrelated, of course, but sponsorship tends to be positive for brand and not do a huge amount for reputation in the ‘broad-reach’ sense. Sponsorship tends to provide a positive context in which the organisation is perceived, or a platform, which provides a favourable setting on which reputation enhancement can occur through more meaningful activity in regards to awareness and relationship building.

In a sense, sponsorship can be a facile communication activity, as it is often ‘buying space’ (not unlike advertising) in stakeholders’ lives in the hope of enhancing brand perceptions. It’s not actually ‘engaging’ or likely to lead to any profound organisation-stakeholder transaction.

To make a really profound impact sponsorship, perhaps more than any other communication activity mentioned here apart from advertising, really needs to be integrated closely into the broader communication strategy.

Ideally, the activity which is sponsored needs to correlate, or be relevant, to the infrastructure itself and the values of the organisation responsible for its development. Sponsoring an activity simply because it exists within the geographical area is not the best reason for undertaking sponsorship. In the case of an infrastructure project, potentially credible and valuable sponsorships might include:

  • Science, mathematics, Human Society in its Environment (a NSW, Australia school subject) or environmental science prizes in local primary and high schools
  • Local TAFES that provide training in infrastructure-relevant disciplines (e.g. welding, electrician, building, safety)
  • Driver training courses, school crossing ‘lollipop’ safety monitors.

As you can see, education and schools are an important theme in what I think are relevant. It is critical that there is no involvement in any activity that cannot demonstrate a valuable contribution to the community and could be perceived as not relevant of the business and/or a waste of taxpayer funds.

I am highly sceptical that undertaking sponsorship of sporting groups, or school fetes or carnivals, would be an appropriate approach to take.

Education and community outreach for relationship building

For an initiative such as the one in question, a communication strategy that utilises avenues presented by school education is one that should, at the very least, be considered:

  • Students’ views are proven influencers of their parents’ views
  • There are plenty of themes within school subjects that material relevant to the infrastructure can be developed for that will help with students’ learning. The infrastructure provides a valuable, immediately accessible case study
  • Engineers and other employees from the project can visit schools and engage with school children, whilst site visits are of course possible
  • Schools are always appreciative of resources that provide additional resonance to their efforts to educate and engage children
  • The resources should include elements which necessitate the involvement of students’ parents to help ‘push’ information about the project into the home environment.

There are challenges, of course:

  • Education departments and authorities need to be liaised with. They move slowly…
  • The ROI of education resources and initiatives need to be considered, especially in the context that the project will have ‘in your face’ resonance for a relatively small section of the broader state or national community (thus ensuring the education materials’ resonance beyond the local being imperative)
  • It is a multi-layered and time consuming approach to produce the materials and communicate to/engage with relevant teachers and schools
  • The relevant subject’s teachers’ association needs to consulted with.

The nature of the education initiatives need to be customised to the commercial and political realities of the project, but that can be said about every tactical element considered for the communication strategy.

Community presentations and forums; site visits, events

Just as with presentations at school, presentations and site visits for community groups – including groups of the elderly, NGOs and school parent bodies – are a default communication mechanism.

Open Days, community fairs and site walk-throughs tried and proven means of generating engagement, but whether the amount of engagement generated is sufficient to provide ROI is a moot point indeed, just like setting up a stand at a shopping centre and handing out leaflets to bored shoppers…

Budget, evaluation, advertising and more…

This has not been an exhaustive discussion of how to approach communication strategy for infrastructure. Budget and evaluating impact speak for themselves. Just do them! Hopefully it has provided some useful information and provides something of a model on which communication approaches and programs can be built.

Thank goodness – I’m finished! Now, over to you. What are your thoughts on this six-part series? What have I missed? What key points haven’t I made? Do you work in infrastructure or engineering comms – share your experience with us and, particularly in the case of sponsorship and communication through schools, what value can you add to what I’ve outlined in this specific post?

This is the final post in this six-part series talks about sponsorship, school education and community communication programs. Previous posts talked about approaches to public relations, market research and target audiences; the listening, conversational and adaptive characteristics of excellent communication strategy; the Holy Trinity of PR; media relations and strategic alliances; social media and other aspects of digital communication.