Rebuilding Trust in Your Communications – A Case Study About the Michigan 2020 Census

Mistrust is one of the biggest challenges that communicators face. Recent political and social issues, combined with the misinformation and myths that can accompany them, have left communicators facing publics that are both critical and circumspect. But rebuilding trust can be possible by using the right mix of media, messages and messengers.

MCCI’s Rich Donley, APR, and Michelle Franzen Martin recently showed our Chapter and IABC Detroit how to break down barriers and help rebuild trust in your communications by sharing their experience with Michigan Nonprofit Association’s 2020 census campaign. The multi-year census campaign, which targeted historically undercounted populations across the state, received a 2021 IABC Gold Quill award of merit and a 2021 PRSA Award of Excellence (Silver Anvil finalist).

This work began in 2017 to overcome mistrust.

Taking a Step Back

MCCI started with the understanding that the census has missed disproportionate numbers of people from historically undercounted populations. This includes ethnic/minority populations, immigrants, families with young children, senior citizens, those living in poverty, people in rural communities or those who are experiencing homelessness. When it comes to the census:

  • There’s a general distrust of government
    • A question on the census about U.S. citizenship was a huge concern for many people in the historically undercounted populations due to fears of deportation
  • There are confidentiality and privacy concerns
    • Moreover, 2020 was the first time the census was available online
  • There was a lot at stake, as Michigan stood to lose millions of dollars in federal support for programs that use census data

MCCI, in partnership with MNA, began this campaign by conducting primary and secondary research, both formal and informal to understand barriers, attitudes and motivators surrounding the census. Their key learnings were:

  • It’s more than just urban centers (Detroit/metro areas); there also needs to be a focus on rural communities. This means reaching people where they are, and being hyper-focused and community-centric in outreach (quality over quantity).
  • Helping people understand the census’ purpose, the content itself and the process of filling out the census would increase participation but only if it were believable via clear and concrete messaging. This led the agency to list the questions from the census on a microsite to increase transparency.
  • Marginalized communities depend on nonprofits as a trusted messenger and advocate in their lives.

Fully Integrated Campaign

My biggest takeaway was the integrated approach required in reaching all the key audiences. MCCI targeted Michiganders in countless different ways across the PESO model. Particularly educating, engaging and empowering messengers, aka advocates, who could help reach audiences who had previously mistrusted the overall census process.

Key Takeaways

MCCI noted that, “despite a world disrupted and rampant with mis- and disinformation, you can earn trust and break down barriers through the medium, the messages and the messengers, just like this campaign.” Key takeaways included:

  • Reach people where they are
    • At their level/understanding
    • Right time. Right placement
  • Be authentic
    • In words and actions
  • Make your messengers part of the process
    • Let them educate and empower you
  • Take a step back to move forward

And ultimately, Michigan was the first state in the country to reach its self-response rate! Check out the full case study on MCCI’s website for additional information.

As always, thank you to those who attended. We hope you can join us for our upcoming events.

Megan Bonelli (formerly Peterson) is an account supervisor at Stratacomm and a Detroit PRSA board member.