Public Relations Tactics

Why the U.S. Census Bureau counted on public relations

July 1, 2010

Suppose you are responsible for a PR campaign targeting more than 300 million people to determine where to allocate $400 billion in government funding.  Add in a federal mandate that your audience must respond to your messages, employees who are sworn to secrecy, and a target participation rate greater than the 2008 presidential election and you start to understand the magnitude of your task.

For public affairs professionals at the U.S. Census Bureau, this campaign is a reality and has extensive implications. It’s the 2010 Census, a decennial count that strives to reach everyone in the United States.  The Census is also a logistical nightmare to plan and implement.

“[The Census] doesn’t happen every day — this is something that only happens every 10 years,” says Raul Cisneros, chief of the 2010 Census public information office.  “It’s unlike any other PR campaign. You have to reach everybody.”

Fortunately, the government has an impressive résumé — 220 years and 22 Censuses, to be exact. Since 1790, the United States has been fulfilling the Constitutional requirement to enumerate the population and ensure accurate funding, representation and allocation of government resources.

Relying on public relations
To cope, the Census Bureau revamped the role of public relations this year because a once-a-decade count of the entire population is more like the introduction of a new product than a continuing campaign, Cisneros says.

“There is a re-education process,” he explains. “There is the element of having to educate and motivate the entire population to participate in the Census.  That’s a key challenge.”

Stephen Buckner, assistant division chief of the Census’s public information office, also says that societal and technological changes since the last Census are among the reasons the Bureau rethought its communications strategy.

“Technology is changing how PR professionals do their work and represent their clients daily,” he says. “The Internet wasn’t used like it is used today.”

Buckner notes that in 2000, Google was in its infancy, and there weren’t iPods or iPhones. “These [types of] changes presented new opportunities we’ve taken from social media and multimedia standpoints,” he says.

Counting people without cutting corners
Faced with declining response rates, the Bureau first used advertising in the 2000 Census.  The result was a staggering 72 percent response rate. During this decade, the Bureau aimed to match or exceed that figure by creating the largest integrated communications campaign that  the government has conducted — ever.

The plan: combine marketing, PR and advertising initiatives into a 351-page campaign.

To mobilize the nation, the Bureau championed a 13-vehicle, 160,000-mile road tour, employed social media presences on Twitter and Facebook and overlapped a $5.1 million advertising package with the 2010 Winter Olympics.  The Bureau even bought a 30-second Super Bowl commercial spot from CBS, which reached an estimated 106 million people in February — a third of its target audience.

Even though landing a coveted Super Bowl spot was novel, Buckner says the Bureau found that the best way to motivate Americans is not by opinion leaders pulling from the top down, but through grassroots communication pushing from the bottom up.

“When it comes down to it, the Census is in the hands of everyone,” he says. “We’ve learned over the years [that] when a community takes ownership of the Census, it’s a far more powerful form of communication [to engage] them than if the Bureau was the only one trying to share that message.”

For that reason, the Bureau also focused on igniting interest through more than 100,000 local community leaders and businesses, forging relationships with faith-based organizations and translating tactics into 14 languages.

Keeping tabs on the results
Like any PR campaign, evaluation is paramount, and, for the Census Bureau’s ambitious objectives, synonymous with success.  After all, the Census is simply a measurement of the country on epic proportions.

According to Yoram Wurmser, research manager at the Direct Marketing Association, the average response rate for direct mailers to a house file — the type of mailer that the Census form fits in — is 3.42 percent. But despite the factors playing against it this year, the Bureau matched the nearly three-quarters response rate from 2000.

“The environment in the United States is different than it was 10 years ago,” Cisneros says.

 He cites changes in the economy, increases in home foreclosures and a more complex media landscape as contributing to a more difficult population to count than past Censuses. “Nevertheless, we achieved [the same participation rate], and that means less Census workers who have to go out and knock on doors. We are very pleased.”

Some people wonder why the Census didn’t move online this year. Ultimately, security concerns about online technology led the government to eliminate considering Web-based Census forms as a possibility, Buckner says.

“Nobody knows what the Internet will look like in 10 years,” Buckner says. “[But] we will be there for sure.”

Philip Volmar
Philip Volmar is a graduate of Brigham Young University's award-winning PR program. He specializes in digital public relations and integrated marketing.
Email: pvolmar at


Kelly Merritt says:

I would have liked to have been on the ground floor of this PR campaign. As a long-time communications professional and a 2010 temporary Crew Leader, I was disappointed in the messaging the Census Bureau provided its enumerators to respond to reluctant citizens. As this article points out, a decennial census is called for in the U.S. Constitution, and it has been done every decade since 1790, but there was little mention of that in the enumerator talking points. And I felt the other talking points were largely ineffective, as if they were expecting very little resistance from Citizens. I hope the Census seeks further PR support for next time around.

July 8, 2010

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