Communication has always been key to the success of the decennial census. As part of every census, the U.S. Census Bureau embarks on a nationwide effort to encourage everyone to respond online, by phone or by mail. And that means everyone: It needs to reach into every community possible across the 50 states and five territories. As part of the 2020 campaign, the communications team focused on continuously monitoring and optimizing its efforts to drive the highest response possible.
Years in the making, the campaign plan was ramping up for the final big push when the pandemic hit, forcing the communications directorate to rethink its plans.
In an interview with GovLoop, Kaile Bower, who led the Campaign Optimization Review Team, discussed how the team adapted to the rapidly changing situation.
The responses were lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
GovLoop: When did you realize that you needed a new strategy?
Bower: It was about mid-March 2020 when the government basically shut down and sent everyone home. As that happened, we realized that the modes of communication that we had planned may not be the best for the new situation. We had billboards in high-transportation areas as people were commuting to and from work. And we had to realize that people weren’t going to be commuting for a while. So, how do we reach those people that we thought would be seeing those billboards, or listening to the radio on their drive to and from work?
But our job didn’t change: We still had to make sure that we reached every person in the country to let them know how important this job was for them to fill out their census. We needed to stop and say, “How do we reach these people? What do we need to do to change the way we’re communicating?”
What steps did you take to formulate a new strategy?
We were lucky in one sense. We had already established a cadence of daily meetings, seven days a week. We were briefing leadership every day as well, to let them know what we were seeing, and we had a great team of contractors we were working with who were experts in the media. We were able to stop and say, “How are we going to pivot? If you’re not leaving your house, how do we connect with you?”
One thing we ended up doing was advertising on pizza boxes, because we knew people were getting home delivery of food. Also, we had had all these materials set up for partnership events – for our people who were on the ground who would be going to music festivals or community events and handing out census information, bags with the Census name and website on them. All of those were shut down. So we worked with the local communities that were providing food assistance, and we repurposed those bags so they could take the food, put it in those bags and then send them home with the people who needed it.
How did you get people thinking creatively like that?
We had permission to think outside the box. Leadership really stood behind us and said, “OK, figure it out – put all the ideas on the table, and let’s see what we can do.”
By being given that permission, all of the ideas came out. Some were great, some were not so great. But it allowed us to look at each one and see which was going to be feasible. And then we turned to the experts that we had hired – Team Y&R, which led and managed all media-buying efforts in support of the 2020 Census campaign. They were looking at the landscape, analyzing people’s media consumption, and they fed us all that data that we needed to figure out where the best invitation of change would be.
At a personal level, how did you adapt to this challenging environment?
I have three children, so you know my life is chaos every day!
And this has been my third census, and I think you find out after working one, you either thrive in a chaotic experience, or you don’t. Those people that do thrive in chaos tend to come back every 10 years and want to work on the census again. It’s just that kind of rush: What we’re doing is so important and exciting, because we are really leading change at this point. Everything we do impacts the world around us, including our communities, our neighborhoods. It’s that commitment to really wanting to make a difference.
Takeaways: Having gone through this experience, what lessons or best practices would you share with other people?
First, you need to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. You want to think through how you’re going to use the data you’re collecting, and then take that time to set up your systems that let you do the things that you want to do with that data. In the beginning, it’s a lot of requirements-gathering, and it can feel very… not exciting, right? But it’s worth it in the end.
Next, it’s important to adopt a growth mindset culture. You need to make sure that it’s OK if your first effort doesn’t go as intended – that we’re going to use those results to further your thinking and open new possibilities. Give the people you work with the permission to fail.
Finally, you really need to trust your experts, because you hired them for a reason. If they’re telling you something from their experience, you need to trust that.
Photo credit: Dan Burton on Unsplash