Tips For More Effective Flood Outreach

March 27, 2020

At Forerunner we help government agencies streamline floodplain management workflows and get more out of their resources. In many of the conversations we have with floodplain managers and planners, conducting better outreach around flood education is top of mind. This is not surprising since Americans have historically trusted their local governments more than state or national government. Indeed, municipalities are uniquely positioned, and uniquely incentivized, to leverage outreach as a resident mitigation tool for a few reasons:

  1. They interact with residents. A lot. Repeatedly engaging residents around the notion of risk helps them make more informed decisions about safety and property.
  2. Providing expertise grows trust. Continuous communication with residents cultivates continued trust and encourages dialogue.
  3. Flood outreach can have co-benefits. For communities participating in the CRS, conducting flood outreach can have the added benefit of earning much-needed flood insurance discounts for residents.

For all of these reasons, many of the people we work with feel strongly about the power and responsibility of resident engagement. But not all of them have access to the time, resources, and expertise needed to invest meaningfully in designing dynamic flood outreach projects. Luckily, conducting great outreach isn't rocket science. For those of you working in local government looking for ways to improve engagement around flooding, here are some things to keep in mind when you're designing your next outreach project.

Leverage Existing Materials & Tools

Well-designed materials with clear messaging can make a huge difference in engagement with local programming. Thankfully, there are a lot of materials out there that you can use as a starting point (check out Ready.gov's toolkit, FEMA's FloodSmart resources, and these assets from the Association of State Floodplain Managers)

For some of you, these resources might be enough! For others, you might be wanting something more bespoke for your community. We find that this is true when communities have locally-specific outreach objectives. Templated materials make assumptions about audience and message that might not be quite aligned. For other communities, local government officials are interested in brand recognition. Since local governments have a leg up in building trust, aligning graphic language across materials can help you tap into your social capital.

Questions for Designing Outreach

Outreach projects can range from community events, to emails, to door-to-door chats. While each of these types of projects will require significantly different resources, they might involve the same types of questions at the outset. Here are some of the questions we ask municipalities when they're starting to design outreach:

  • Audience. Who are you trying to reach? Can you be super specific about this?
  • Messaging. What are you trying to say? How do you want people to receive your message?
  • Graphics. Beyond words, how else are you communicating? Are there messages that could benefit from graphic content?
  • Channels. You've defined your audience, now how are you reaching them?
  • Evaluation. How will you know if your outreach project worked?

Audience

The question of audience might seem pretty straightforward. You're targeting your residents, after all. But taking the time to be specific about this target audience will pay in dividends. You might want to create a persona (a composite theoretical audience member) to be more specific in design. Let's say you want to send a repetitive loss property mailing. A vague audience would be "all of the rep loss property owners in my city". Not all buildings in a rep loss area are equally mitigated. A better answer might factor demographic data or elevation certificate data into this description. Once you've defined your audience, some questions to ask:

  • What language does your audience speak? This question might apply to structured languages (i.e. Spanish vs English) or natural language. Terms describing flood conditions can be controversial or fungible.
  • What are the needs and motivations of your audience?
  • What drives your audience to act? A lot of research in flood behavior has indicated that people don't necessarily react logically or predictably to

These are especially important questions when you're dealing with floodplain management because individuals don't necessarily process and respond to flood risk in the same ways.

Messaging & Graphics

Communicating in the right language is crucial in the context of flooding. Does your community refer to sunny day flooding and high tide flooding? What is nuisance flooding to your residents? Is it an applicable term or would your residents consider it to be offensive? Once you have your language right, remember that effective messages are simple and have clear calls to action. Your audience will likely have an easier time remembering shorter, more impactful messages. Plain  Craft effective messages with clear calls to action. The federal government's Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) website has some great examples of clear messaging if you want some inspiration!

Similarly, clear and attractive graphic design can increase engagement with your projects. You don't need a lot of imagery to make a powerful point, fewer graphics can often leave a more lasting impression. If your outreach project involves communicating with a lot of text, consider leveraging contrast and hierarchy (using colors and sizing) to differentiate sections of your message. This could make your message more accessible to residents who have a lot on their mind. Just as it's important to carefully consider verbal or written language, be deliberate about your graphic language. How do you want your project to be perceived? Is it neighborly? Conversational? Official? Urgent? Images can tell a story as much as words can.

Choosing a Channel

Depending on the message you want to communicate, you might want to utilize one or many engagement channel. As you know, every medium has its pros and cons. A lot of our customers use these:

  • Direct mail. Direct mail can be very targeted and have a strong impact. If you mail your residents too much information, though, your messages can easily get lost in a sea of junk mail.
  • Phone. Calling residents directly can be helpful if you want direct 1-1 contact. This method can be time consuming, though, and you might only reach those who still use phones.
  • Signage. Signs, billboards, and posters can be long lasting and reach a wide audience. It's difficult to measure impact, though.
  • Events. Holding events can be a great way to engage many community members in a short amount of time. A downside might be cost.
  • Digital. Digital outreach using your website, social media, or ads can be a very agile way to reach your audience. Digital marketing accommodates significant performance monitoring, as well, so you can get meaningful feedback on how effective your outreach is. Some downsides include ongoing maintenance, cost, and the need for expertise.

Quick Tips

Hopefully this gives you some thoughts to chew on as you consider your next outreach campaign. Get in touch with us if you have additional questions. We're always happy to chat about ways to increase engagement. In the meantime, we'll leave you with a few quick tips:

  • Experiment! We meet a lot of people who do the same outreach projects year over year. Your messaging doesn't have to be fixed, nor does your audience. Try on words or images for size, and then adapt based on performance!
  • Put your website on your flyers. Cross marketing can give you greater information exposure. Whenever you design one outreach project, make sure to identify ways to weave in your existing marketing assets.
  • Set up analysis/evaluation. Web analytics can help you calibrate your messaging and the timing of our projects. If you're doing a non-digital outreach project, you can conduct an in-person survey to get some data on performance. Ask inquirers how they got to you, the answer might be surprising!
  • Engage repeatedly. Don't be afraid to reiterate the same message multiple times through multiple channels. We all have a lot going on and chances are your residents could use a reminder.

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