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Back to Basics: Grassroots PR

Posted At: May 17, 2012 12:28 PM
by Anna Ellis

What does it take to develop a successful public relations campaign? This is a question that constantly rings in PR professionals’ ears. During a campaign, PR pros live and breathe for their clients. The more obvious answers to creating a successful campaign are developing a keen knowledge of the client, devising an well-devised strategic plan and setting into play a compelling set of tactics.

Photo by Victoria Peckham

But there is one essential element that seems to get lost in the midst of today’s overwhelming use of various news and media outlets, as well as social media. That element is face-to-face contact with the public.

Recently, the Public Relations Society of America released its new definition of PR, which states, “public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

In order to build a strong, mutually beneficial relationship between an organization and a key public, special attention must especially be paid to that public. They are the key to any organization’s success. Allowing the public to have a say in the company’s initiatives will only increase the success rate.

There are numerous ways to go about getting the public involved, such as hosting house meetings, talking with pedestrians in the streets, going door-to-door with clipboards to gather opinions, setting up an information table and activating personal phone calls and emails. These efforts are oftentimes referred to as “grassroots.”

By reaching out to the public in a more personal way, the PR professional will not be the only strong advocate for the client. Public supporters can become “cheerleaders” for an organization. Once they are strongly involved, they will begin to host their own functions to spread the word of an organization.

Grassroots is an old-fashioned technique and has many advantages. The first, and probably most important, is that it is low cost.

Grassroots campaigns have a proven success rate. In 2008, the PR company Hodges and Associates in Birmingham ran a highly successful campaign for Yes We Can! Birmingham that was based solely on grassroots efforts. In fact, because community opinion was the backbone of the campaign, the campaign itself was called “Raise Your Voice to Improve Our Schools.”

Greg Hodges, president of Hodges and Associates, credits the success of the campaign to the community of Birmingham. The campaign consisted of “hosting a series of community conversations where [city officials] invited citizens to share their ideas and explore the connections between quality public education and improved community life,” he said.

By using unique grassroots efforts, such as clipboard conversations and community events throughout the city to offer everyone a chance to share his or her thoughts, the “Raise Your Voice to Improve Our Schools” campaign was highly successful. It helped build a foundation for Yes We Can! Birmingham, which continues to implement the information gathered during the “Raise Your Voice” campaign to improve Birmingham city schools. These techniques allowed the team working on the campaign to use what little resources they had to their advantage.

Grassroots efforts are oftentimes used for political campaigns. In the 2008 election, grassroots supporters helped President Barack Obama rise to glory. A 2008 TIME magazine article, entitled “Obama’s Ohio Grassroots Advantage,” stated, “grassroots Obama supporters … are the key to his having a chance on March 4 of continuing his stunning streak of 11 straight primary or caucus victories — and all but locking up the Democratic nomination.”

This was just the beginning of Obama’s rise to fame. Grassroots supporters eventually helped him go on to win the 2008 presidential election.

Louise Crow, account representative at Peritus PR Firm in Birmingham, developed a campaign for the city of Gatlinburg to help increase tourism interest in its feeder markets by bringing winter in the Smokies to a high-traffic event in selected markets.

“Since press tours are becoming more outdated and increasingly expensive, we decided to use grassroots efforts to bring the city of Gatlinburg’s tourism attractions to certain feeder markets to shape a new direction for Gatlinburg’s public relations efforts,” said Crow.

Some of the event highlights included a snow slide, a taste of Smoky Mountain candy, appearances from Gatlinburg’s mascot, Zeno the bear, and a trip giveaway contest for nominated Tuscaloosa families that were affected by the April storms. This campaign relied on the use of grassroots efforts to build buzz around the event, develop earned media coverage for the trip giveaway to the selected family, and educate event attendees on Gatlinburg travel.

Through Gatlinburg Brings Snow to the South feeder city events, Peritus secured coverage on 11 out of the 12 major television stations in the Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham markets with a total of 60 million media impressions that were estimated at more than $63,000 in advertising value, which was more than five times the budget for the events.

There are, of course, some disadvantages to grassroots campaigns. Unethical techniques, such as astroturfing, which advocates manipulation of public opinion, are at times practiced. Because grassroots efforts are really about gaining consumers or other key publics on a small rather than large scale, they can take long periods of times to implement. More effort is also needed from those working on the campaign to convey the goodness of the organization to the public.
Like all practices in the ever-evolving field of PR, there is a right way and a wrong way to achieve a successful campaign. It takes a true professional to use the technique of grassroots correctly.

When used correctly and ethically, grassroots efforts can have a highly positive impact on a campaign. In a world where technology reigns supreme and companies tend to lean away from the use of grassroots, going back to basics can oftentimes lead to greater success than companies realize.


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