Our Urgent Responsibility to Improve Public Education: An Investment That Keeps on Giving
In an April 6 article in The New York Times about the evangelical resistance to COVID-19 vaccinations, “Stephanie Nana, an evangelical Christian in Edmond, Okla., was cited as refusing to get a vaccine because she believed it contained ‘aborted cell tissue.’ In another instance, Lauri Armstrong, a Bible-believing nutritionist outside of Dallas, said she did not need the vaccine because God designed the body to heal itself, if given the right nutrients. Yet another example included Nathan French, who leads a nondenominational ministry in Tacoma, Wash., who said he received a divine message that God was the ultimate healer and deliverer: ‘The vaccine is not the savior.’ ”
As community media continues to fracture and proliferate, and as public opinion becomes so politicized and fraught with alternative or varied sources of news and information, it is the responsibility of nonprofit leaders to build a strong case for support to educate the broader US population. This commitment should not be viewed as a philanthropic cost item on the balance sheet because the cost-to-benefit analysis is incredibly effective. A leadership position in public education can put your organization on the map and accelerate growth more effectively than advertising, digital marketing for owned media, partnerships, or press.
The Business Benefits
The business benefits of content marketing are well known among digital marketing professionals. Brand consultants and SEO experts champion the right content, marketed to the right audiences, using the right channels. Content improves and maintains search rank, builds trust and authority for the brand, creates relevance for funding, and positions the nonprofit as a leader in its field. It raises the profile of the organization and creates differentiation and distinction — placing the brand far above the growing number of niche advocacy groups vying for attention.
A robust public education program can serve as the content marketing platform. I recently served as the head of marketing for an organization with three primary programs: clinical care, research, and public education. I always believed that of the three, public education was most important to the growth of the brand. The research teams and the clinical practice played necessary functions, but opportunities to build a national brand were limited through those missions and audiences. With public education and hundreds of evergreen articles on conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, selective mutism, autism, bipolar disorder, and many types of learning disorders, we were able to engage a broad audience, earn important press, and cultivate new relationships with media outlets and influencers. The elevated profile as a public education advocacy made us more visible for foundational grants and other funding, and we were able to develop new corporate partnerships.
In the month of May — National Mental Health Awareness Month — we created a large celebrity campaign and in its first year, the monthlong awareness effort garnered 3.4 BILLION media impressions. In 2020, it achieved 4.5 BILLION media impressions and introduced the organization to a plethora of new media and influential partners. Our web visitors grew from 450,000 to 1.8 million in just three years. The commitment to all of this was incredibly practical in cost-to-benefit terms. The cost of the campaign was only about $25,000 in talent booking fees for celebrity recruitment (not including the indirect costs of staff).
Without question, the public education platform presented enormous and enviable opportunities to build national awareness for the brand on a relatively small budget. Embedded in every article and every social post that empowered individuals and families was the organization’s signature logo, tagline, URL and call-to-action — all positioning the brand beautifully as a solutions-based advocate for a very important and growing cause.
But a rigorous public education program does something else. It delivers crucially important information to a public audience that is currently in desperate need of accurate information and a renewed ability to trust again.
The Real Issue
Public nonprofit organizations — especially those with a science or research focus — are falling behind in the fight to remain relevant and break through the noise and clutter of a billion other messages. It’s difficult to make progress toward the mission when a majority of the population doesn’t buy into the work.
We’re missing the sense of urgency, the sense of action required in order to meet the emerging threats. The reality is that no one will care about your message until they first have “a reason to believe.” How dire is the situation? What data or academic studies are available to reinforce your case? The case for support needs to be made clearly and in provocative, compelling ways before the case for funding, or partnering, or any other message can be successfully presented.
When considering the drastic circumstances faced by climate change, or the current COVID-19 pandemic, or with a vast concern like mental health, it’s clear that the US doesn’t yet have a proper and thorough grasp of the consequences of not acting, and doing it fast. The lackadaisical and mixed public sentiment is truly alarming. The anti-science movement, anti-vaxxer movement, climate science denial are all examples of public confusion and dissent. Gaining the necessary traction to influence policies or fund the appropriate organizations will always be a challenge without a sea shift in current public opinion.
A persuasive argument begins with why it isn’t working, so the case for support always comes first in the pipeline of cultivation and development. Successful advertising begins with a message about what is broken because savvy marketers understand that they must show us the cold reality first. The colors can brighten, the room can lighten and the music and voiceover can all tick upward as the solutions are presented — but we must see the problem.
While public education may seem like the least important area to invest, it actually generates the most value. For a few reasons, cause-based organizations can’t afford to remain on the sidelines. A strong public education and advocacy voice offers too many benefits to ignore. Without elevating awareness for the need and first making a case for the public to support the issue, the rest of the research and science messaging risks falling on deaf ears.
And this doesn’t have to be a competitive approach. Coalitions are a great way to pool resources toward a common goal. The real issue is changing public awareness and also, driving a change in behaviors and leading a large percentage of the population to take action in a positive way. Strategically planned, in the proper order, the brand growth and conversions or acquisitions will come.
As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.