Most of this guide is about the last of these, promotion, but it's important not to overlook the first three.
The challenge is this: to design a public engagement activity or event – a 'product' – that will achieve not only what you want but also what the public, or a particular section of it, wants. You can achieve a lot through a blend of common sense and informal consultation with colleagues, intermediary organisations and members of the public.
As well as designing an activity or event that people will want to be part of, you have to price it appropriately. This is of limited relevance here, since so much public engagement activity – especially the genuinely two-way variety – is free.
People have to be willing and able to get to and participate in your public engagement activity, for example, there is little value in doing everything at the University and expecting people to come to you. Consider whether it would be better to hold the event at an accessible off-campus venue. Timing is another key factor.
If all is well with the previous three Ps, your promotional task should be simple. By the same token, if something is seriously amiss with any or all of the first three Ps, even large amounts of clever promotion may not be enough to reach your desired audience.
Once you've identified your audience using our understanding audiences pages, you should think about your message. Here are some suggestions:
- Find the essence of your message and express it in one powerful 'headline' statement that can be unpacked later on in your letter/leaflet/press release; indicate the benefits to the audience of taking part
- Use a striking quote – from a speaker, a distinguished academic or someone who attended a previous event – to support your message
- Remember that you are communicating with non-specialists, so use plain English
- Remember that people lead busy lives and are bombarded with information, so they appreciate brevity
Once you have a good idea of who your audiences are and what your key messages to them are, you can do some targeted promotion by:
- Communicating directly with relevant organisations
- Making intelligent use of any mailing lists you or your communications and marketing colleagues have
- Sponsored promotion on social media
- Placing printed material in venues used by the target audience
- Advertising in appropriate specialist publications
- Taking your story to local radio or TV
As well as targeting people who have an affinity with your kind of event, you should pursue wider networks. This can bring on board people who are not in the 'committed' or 'likely to be interested' groups but who are 'open to persuasion'. This often requires a bit of thinking outside the box, drawing a map of all the key issues and topics your activity relates to, and then developing a list of networks and organisations that also have an interest in those topics.
Pulling it all together
The various ways in which you promote your public engagement event can work together and reinforce one another, creating a 'perfect storm' that generates excitement – and an audience. Over time, as more such events take place, the momentum will increase:
- Some people will become regulars
- You can tell them about future activities and they can join the mailing list
- They will communicate on your behalf through their networks
- Journalists will notice the head of steam that is building up and take more interest
Further promotional support
The best sources of help are people with whom you can speak face-to-face. Your institution's specialists in public engagement and events and the communications and marketing team should be your first ports of call. Public relations is quite different from public engagement, but people who work in these areas have interests in common:
- Public engagement events can be newsworthy and warrant attention from the press team
- Such activities can also be of interest to the web and digital media team
- These events can be a powerful means of building an institution's brand and reputation