When to Communicate a Message
When possible, a proactive approach to communications is always best. Whether alerting the
community about the agency’s new initiative, highlighting an award winner’s achievement or
providing the local perspective on a national trend, getting out ahead of the media keeps
Communications in better control of how the agency is perceived.
Communicating with elected officials and policymakers and their representatives, either through
routine media alert emails or phone calls, before a story hits the media is a useful way to control
messages and prevent the coverage of a crisis from getting worse. Typically, elected officials do
not like to hear about events in the agency from the news media. It is therefore important to
directly involve them in working with Communications to continually improve information flow, work
on crisis responses together and provide a unified front.
As a proactive approach is not always possible, providing as much information as soon as possible
to key stakeholders is a good rule of thumb. The agency should have an internal method for
dispelling rumors and inaccurate information portrayed in the media. Such a response could range
from a simple written statement from the Director sent to all staff via email to a similar video
broadcast message emailed or posted on the intranet. Most importantly, craft every message as if it
were an external message.
Expect that everything disseminated internally could or will be leaked externally, including to the
media. Bear this in mind when communicating with staff or external stakeholders with any kind of
statement or email.
Any message deemed important should be communicated often, even on a daily basis, through constant
positioning and ongoing dialogue. This work is not static. Messaging is meant to be a fluid process
and can be refreshed and updated regularly to reflect additional agency goals and needs. Ideally,
the vision and messages of the agency should become so ingrained in the minds of staff members and
contracted staff that repeating and using them become second nature to everyone. Staff should be
invested in the messages and know their input and suggestions are valued.
Developing a powerful message is only one part of the public child welfare agency’s marketing
equation. Disseminating it is the other. Very few public child welfare agencies have the luxury of
a marketing and public awareness budget, owing to categorical funding streams. It follows that,
historically, public child welfare agencies have been priced out of traditional marketing venues
(television, radio and environmental advertising). But there are creative ways to find entry into
these exclusive and pricey domains. Expensive, glossy campaigns are enviable, but there are many
creative alternatives Communications and the agency can take advantage of with little or no money.
Many of these ideas are based on creating partnerships and then leveraging these relationships to
create campaigns and implement outreach strategies. Although these ideas do not take much money,
they do require time to build relationships with media and other stakeholders.
This section explores ways to have messages seen and heard without ‘breaking the bank’, or - as is
often the case - without having a bank. Some suggestions are predicated on building external
relationships. Other inexpensive means of disseminating messages originate within the agency. Both
can be accomplished with minimal financial outlay but generate valuable results.
Partner with Local Media to Create Media Campaigns
Partnering with local media can be done in any media market, large or small. Ethnic media are
particularly receptive to the idea, as they often run many educational and informational news
pieces and programs. One idea might be to ask a TV station to sponsor National Foster Care Month or
National Adoption Month. The agency could work together with the station to create a Public
Service Announcement (PSA) series promoting foster care and adoptions designed to run during the
nightly news broadcasts.
Such a station will usually produce the PSA in their studio and because of their sponsorship, run
it for free during peak viewing times when advertising costs the most. The following is a sample of
a media campaign sponsored by TV.
Likewise, relationship-building with local radio hosts can result in free air time. Start by
getting to know local public affairs and public access show producers; they are often looking for ideas and ways to educate the public.
Fill in the Blanks of Environmental Advertising
Environmental advertising, also known as billboards, provides great visual impact and should be
used by the agency to its advantage when that medium is appropriate. Most outdoor advertising space
is owned by a few major companies with representatives in the local community. Since many companies
are invested in the community and understand the importance of goodwill, they will often entertain
proposals that reinforce positive community themes. Issues that support children are generally
viewed in this light.
The secret to being able to afford billboard exposure is to know that not all billboards are rented
every month. Any unrented space is often available for free or at reduced rates for non-profits.
Contact these companies directly and let them know about the project. Inquire if they have any
unsold billboard space anywhere in the city or county for that month. Companies always prefer to
donate free ad space rather than have a blank billboard.
It is best to contact companies at the beginning of the month since ad space is usually sold months
in advance. Ask for as many spaces as they are willing to donate. Rarely will it be prime space
(e.g., main arteries, or freeways), but it's free and some people in the community are guaranteed
to see the ad. It is very likely that this one contact could result in months’ worth of free
environmental advertising, since ads generally remain intact until someone purchases the space or
another public agency is granted a similar request. While the ad space may be free, it is still
the agency’s responsibility to get the artwork prepared and sent to the outdoor advertising
Occupy Print Ad Space
Contact local newspapers and ask if they can donate ad space for agency foster parent recruitment
or adoption efforts. Often, the papers will quote their non-profit discounted rate. Approach the
negotiations with full knowledge of the agency’s budget constraints, being candid about the funds
available for the ads. Since newspapers are struggling and circulation is on a steady decline, free
space is generally out of the questions, but substantially discounted rates are not.
Take Advantage of Public Service Announcement (PSA) Requirments
PSAs are another excellent free resource to publicize an event or circulate a message since
broadcast stations are required to offer airtime to public benefit. In the case of radio PSAs,
the station usually sets parameters of 15 or 30 seconds. The agency provides the script and submits
it electronically. Television stations vary on acceptable formats (i.e., Beta or DVD). Check online
for the requirements of each television station. Specific instructions should be contained on their
web site. If not, contact the person responsible for community affairs.
For agencies that want to run a television PSA but don't have video, most markets have a
community/government channel that lists city/county council meetings and other community events.
Using this channel is ideal for a scripted PSA.
Target Audiences with Movie Theater Advertisements
Agency messages can be place in movie theaters as well. In addition to the customary film previews,
movie theaters are – with increasing frequency - showing advertisements prior to the feature film.
This venue option provides an opportunity to reach a truly targeted audience, especially for foster
or adoptive parent recruitment or a message focused on youth. Contact local cinema managers for all
the necessary information to take advantage of this fairly simple messaging process. The agency
scripts out the message and provides the relevant contact information. Since this is a visual
medium, be prepared to have a photo in the ad (a good stock photo is fine) especially if the ad is
Include your Functions on Calendars of Events
Most community newspapers and many web sites for newspapers and news stations have community
calendars that provide free advertisement of community events with widespread appeal. If the agency
is holding a foster parent recruitment event or any such activity, this is a good way to get the e
ent publicized for free. Many publications require a three to four week lead time, while web
sites are often refreshed immediately.
Engage the Energy of Elected Officials and Policymakers
Elected officials and policymakers who oversee the agency are a valuable and mostly under-used
resource for raising public awareness. Most elected officials have extensive ties in their
districts to public transit authorities (free bus advertisement); local cable outlets (public
service announcements); sports teams (celebrity or team spokesperson and financial support); sports
stadium authorities and boards (free stadium advertisement); and county law enforcement
(collaborative partner). Consider approaching first an elected official who has made their support
of public child welfare issues a priority. However, all officials should be viewed as potential
Elected officials and policy makers can also take on another role for the agency. Ask the chief
elected official to set aside a designated time once a month to honor foster youth who are doing
extraordinary things by presenting an official certificate of recognition. Not only does this serve
as a motivation for the youth, it promotes success within the foster care system through the
resulting media coverage.
Capitalize on the Trend of Social Networking
Word of mouth is a powerful communications tool that is viable long after the initial contact.
Asking foster and adoptive parents to disseminate messages is particularly compelling. Media and
the public love human interest features. Inviting adoptive parents to a public hearing or to a
media interview to discuss permanency from their unique perspectives, fosters credibility.
It is also helpful to build relationships with local Chambers of Commerce. They are often
successful in enlisting aid from the business community to help fund items not covered by
government such as scholarships or needed supplies and services for youth. Many of these Chambers
have free social networking events. Health fairs and other community events are also a good
opportunity to distribute brochures and present a positive face to the agency. Sometimes non
profits and government agencies are even able to negotiate for a free booth.
Partner with Local NonProfit Organizations
Seek out and build relationships with local child abuse prevention organizations or child advocacy
agencies. Many of these organizations have budgets for advertising and marketing and are looking
for new ways to promote themselves. Partnering with these organizations expands an agency’s
opportunities and impact (samples of billboards with Project Nightlight here). Another idea is for
the agency to co-sponsor holiday events or fundraisers with non-profits, for example, to raise
money for college scholarships for youth aging out of the system.
Build on the Contacts of Foster and Adoptive Parent Associations
Foster and adoptive parent organizations are another under-used marketing and public awareness
resource. Foster and Adoptive Parent Associations are usually well organized and often politically
savvy. In most cases, they are viewed as independent of the public child welfare agency and can be
useful advocates, especially during budget debates. Well engaged and invested association members
may volunteer to draft editorials in the local newspaper(s) on issues that are relevant to their
agency and to the benefit of the agency, as well.
Put the Celebrity of Local Heroes to Work for the Children
Local celebrities and sports figures are all possible ambassadors for an agency. However, pursuing
them to embrace an agency’s cause and serve as spokesperson is not for the faint of heart. It
requires a great deal of persistence and perseverance.
Determining the right contact person, honing an engaging message and working with the celebrity
will require a considerable time commitment.
Publish an Agency Newsletter
Producing an agency newsletter is an excellent way to convey important information to internal and
external audiences in a controlled manner. An agency staff newsletter can be posted on the agency
web site or sent to external stakeholders as well. It is fairly inexpensive to launch an agency
newsletter. Most are published and often disseminated electronically. With a nominal initial
investment into publishing or graphic software, such as InDesign, Publisher or Quark, an agency can
produce a newsletter - targeted to a primary audience but disseminated broadly - in relatively
short order. Once a newsletter is established, a section can
be designated and slogan developed (e.g., Open Your Heart and Home) that is distinctive and branded
to the agency.
Create a Youth Speakers’ Bureau
No one can be a better spokesperson for a public child welfare agency than a person who has
personally, positively benefited from it. Many foster youth who have transitioned remain connected
with Independent Living Skills Programs well after they have emancipated. The can be asked to serve
as ambassadors carrying the agency message through the creation of a youth speakers’ bureau.
Youth who are trained to speak to community groups and the media are credible and often compelling.
Their stories can be used to help disseminate the agency message. A youth speakers’ bureau can be
as small as five youth. When selecting particular youth to speak, make sure they have varying
perspectives and offer different viewpoints on various subjects. The need for early permanency
for youth or the importance of a consistent adult figure in a child’s life could be illustrated by
a youth who talks about the challenges of aging out. Youth can also be asked to participate in
awareness campaigns promoting adoption or the need for mentors and other caring adults.
Short of organizing a youth speakers’ bureau, an agency can garner valuable youth perspective by
including a guest youth column in the agency’s newsletter.
Celebrate National “Awareness” Months
There are a number of awareness months dedicated to public child welfare issues and Communications
should capitalize on them. National groups often offer complete toolkits to assist local agencies
to run successful campaigns. For instance, during November which is National Adoption Month,
consider featuring weekly an adoption success story that is sent out electronically to all agency
A Note of Caution
Most advertising and pubic relations companies do a fair amount of pro-bono work; it's good for
their public image and it provides some tax benefits. However, many are bombarded with gratis
requests and cannot assist every agency that asks. Before approaching any company do some homework,
find out about the firm and their area of expertise. (such as whether it specializes in social
marketing, commercial, etc.) Knowing something about the company will personalize the contact and
assist in identifying a potentially good fit.
Public child welfare agencies have compelling and heartfelt stories to tell. Children and families
benefit greatly from having their message articulated with passion, clarity and conviction. This
can be accomplished by tapping into resources within the agency and developing creative strategies
to use more traditional marketing and public aware
ce tag. Know
what message is important to convey and identify the best means to properly relay it.