Attacking Apathy for the U.S. Census
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Holmes Report

Attacking Apathy for the U.S. Census

Census officials asked the C&W team to develop a holistic communications plan that would focus on public apathy by integrating the Bureau’s multiple outreach efforts under one strategic communications plan that would help reach the goal.

Paul Holmes


Executives at the U. S. Census Bureau knew that if recent trends continued, response to the 2000 Census would be a relative disaster.  The Bureau was projecting a 55 percent response, about half of all U.S. residents.  An undercount would result in many communities not receiving their fair share of  $185 billion in Federal funds.  This would mean fewer services such as schools, hospitals, and public transportation as well as losing political representation.  For the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau used an integrated marketing campaign to help elevate the reputation of the census and encourage participation among an incredibly diverse and disinterested population.  C&W/DC and C&W/NY led an integrated communications program (consisting of Census headquarters, its regions, and five agencies) that dealt directly with citizen apathy to increase participation.


Census direct response rates had declined over the previous three decades, from 85 percent in 1970 to 74 percent in 1980 and 65 percent in 1990.  The Bureau’s goal was to generate 73 million responses out of 120 million American households, or 61 percent.  Census officials asked the C&W team to develop a holistic communications plan that would focus on public apathy by integrating the Bureau’s multiple outreach efforts under one strategic communications plan that would help reach the goal.


First, C&W analyzed in-depth research that had been completed in the previous six months by Young & Rubicam, the Census Bureau’s ad agency and Cohn &Wolfe’s parent.  While this research had been compiled for advertising use, C&W found it was valuable in building the plan by spelling out specific attitudes of the audiences they sought to reach.  The Y&R study provided specific attitudinal information about the 17 percent of the audience least likely to respond to the census (fearful, distrustful, totally unaware), the 43 percent who were undecided or passive (not very familiar with census, overall apathetic) and the 40 percent most likely to respond (familiar). This research also revealed the concerns of each group about participating in the census.

Secondly, the C&W team interviewed directors and their staffs from each of Census’ twelve regions to learn their perspectives and insights on the various audiences and to share the Y&R analysis.  The findings concurred with Y&R’s research and confirmed that the Cohn & Wolfe team was dealing with a segmented population, the majority of whom viewed the census as unnecessary paperwork.  However, this same segment could be motivated if given proof of a benefit that meant something to their community.


The objective, as defined by the Bureau, was to reverse the decline of citizen participation in the U. S. Census by achieving a 61 percent response.  Cohn & Wolfe’s primary audience was the “undecided or passives,” the largest segment least likely to participate in the census.  The strategy was to reach each ethnic group in the segment with relevant messaging, and simultaneously support the integrated umbrella communication: every citizen can benefit their community by participating in the census.  By leveraging the research, Cohn & Wolfe was able to apply tailored messages to the many groups that made up the targeted segment.  The approach was to create specific messages that clearly spelled out the advantages of sending back the census form and focus them against each of the identified audiences.  To reinforce the effort, all materials would be created in ten languages.  Additionally, a diversified national outreach effort was planned that integrated Census headquarters, regions and each of the five agencies.


The tactical plan involved separate elements, under the core campaign title of “How America Knows What America Needs.”  The first program, “Plus Five & Because You Count” was a two part call to action to local officials to encourage their constituents to participate.  Another was a grassroots “Road Tour” consisting of a dozen recreational vehicles designed to generate support in places as diverse as urban ethnic markets, small town churches, 4H clubs, and Native American Indian reservations.  Additionally, C&W also edited the crisis and issues manual and provided issues counseling throughout the census, as well as conducted media training with spokespeople from Census and the five agencies.

To reach local officials, C&W provided research on the benefits derived from an accurate count. The materials challenged areas that had suffered from an undercount in the 1990 census.  The program provided helpful tools – a website (which gave daily updates on response returns) and a CD-Rom with a “turnkey” press kit.  In addition, the official support of nine major public interest groups, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was enlisted and asked to encourage participation in low-response communities.

The Road Tour was a rolling visual exhibit that started its engines on The Today Show and then traveled over 15,000 miles in just nine weeks, essentially traversing the country three times.  The 12 vehicles, staffed with public relations professionals of various ethnic backgrounds from each of the five agencies, were equipped with interactive exhibits, educational videos, and information in 10 languages.  The tour visited more than 400 towns, coordinating with local Census directors, to stimulate interest, dispel myths, answer questions and generate knowledge about how completing and returning the census form can benefit the community.

Media highlights included local and national print and broadcast news, televised morning shows, as well as impressive support from Late Night with David Letterman, and a paragraph in the President’s State of the Union Address.  The success, particularly with the local media, was based on the research that revealed the necessity to reach each audience with messages that embraced their concerns and then to relate that to the value of participating in the census.


The objective was to stop the downward trend of citizen participation in the census.  The Census Bureau was predicting a 55 percent response for 2000, and had set a goal of 61 percent for that year, in spite of a 65 percent return in 1990.  But the final count was 67 percent, far exceeding the Bureau's goal.  The New York Times reported Census Bureau officials "credited the improvement to their enhanced marketing" program.

In addition, the numbers of people who had been undercounted dramatically diminished.  As examples, the Bureau reported that among African Americans, 2.2 to 3.4 percent were undercounted in 2000 compared with 4.6 percent in 1990.  For Hispanics, the numbers were 2.7 to 6.7 percent in 2000 versus 12.2 percent in 1990.  Similar decreases were shown for American Indians.

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