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Lake Tips: Communicating Information About Your Lake

Why a Communications Program?
Partnerships such as lake watershed associations are effective because they provide a forum for solving complex problems that involve many interests. A lake association can effectively communicate its mission to the community, coordinate efforts, and save time and money by developing a detailed communications program. The strategic plan for communications should note how, when, where and who is responsible for each element.

Designing a Communications Program
Once the causes and likely solutions to your lake’s problems have been determined, you can decide how to reach out to the community with a communications program. The first step in developing such a program is to understand the external and internal factors that shape how the community will perceive the information you want to convey. The following questions will help you consider internal and external factors:

SOCIAL

  1. How aware are community members of the existing problem?
  2. Has there been regular media coverage on the lake issues?
  3. Are the lake issues a high priority for the community?

POLITICAL

  1. Are there existing rules or restrictions that affect the lake situation?
  2. What political influences does your group have?

ECONOMIC

  1. What economic impacts, such as property values, does the quality of the lake have on the community?
  2. Are economic factors, such as high unemployment, affecting your community?

ORGANIZATIONAL

  1. How should the goals and objectives of your association be prioritized in a communications program?
  2. Are members of your group currently skilled to implement the elements of your communications program? If not, what training or outside help will be needed?
  3. How does the community or intended audience perceive your organization?

Much of the information needed to answer these and additional questions has already been compiled and can be acquired from regional planning agencies, census data, chamber of commerce lists, and local newspapers.

Identifying Target Audience(s)
With your association’s goals and objectives in mind, identify exactly who you are trying to reach with your message and the best way to go about the task. Target audiences are groups that have common characteristics, whether they be income or educational levels, occupations or shared beliefs. A communications program is effective only if the audience or group you are trying to influence understands the message. A target audience should be separated from the general population and should be defined specifically. Examples are "owners and managers of golf courses in Lake County" or "dairy farmers in Green Lake Watershed."

Ultimately, achieving the goals and objectives of your project depends upon understanding what is important to that audience and relating to them how your project will benefit them. For example, what you know about the yard-of-the-month club can help you communicate tactfully to make the group aware that aggressive lawn fertilization is identified as a lake pollution source. How they can go about changing this management practice and rearranging values will rest on the effectiveness of your communications strategy.

Choosing Your Media Formats
With your targeted audience(s) defined, learning more about the knowledge or lack of knowledge of your issues is crucial. It is important to understand your audiences’ current attitude about their role in the problem. Are they aware they are creating part of the problem? Do they know how this negatively affects them? Are they aware of simple, inexpensive solutions to the problem? The answer to these questions will help you formulate your message and choose the best delivery system(s) for that message.

For instance, to get your message across, you will need to know how the target audience currently receives information–via radio, television, video, town meetings, local newspapers, newsletters, magazines or flyers. Consider using more than one channel to increase your chances of reaching more people in your audience, but be careful not to spread your resources too thin. The audience, the characteristics of your message, and your budget are among the factors for determining the appropriate format or channel for communicating that message. Strategically planning your methods and identifying specific tasks to carry out is time well spent.

Designing Communication Materials
The look or design of your communication materials is important because you want people to pay attention to them and remember. This is especially true if you ultimately wish to change their behavior in ways that support environmental protection as a result of your information. Here’s some suggestions:

  1. Provide your audience with actions they can take to be part of the solution to the problem.
  2. Create a logo for your association to use on your correspondence and outreach materials. Keep it simple and appropriate to your group’s mission.
  3. Use vivid, concrete language that is easy to understand. Avoid abstract and technical language.
  4. Photographs, graphics, simple sketches, maps and illustrations can help convey your point or relay how-to information.
  5. When using written materials such as a newsletter, follow a consistent format to help the reader find information quickly and easily. An easy-to-read typeface, appropriate use of bolds and italics, and generous use of white space will improve the effectiveness of your materials.
  6. Choose a title that will capture your audience and attract people to read your materials. Descriptive or suspenseful titles can be used effectively.
  7. Outline your material with clear headings that help organize the information.

Evaluating Your Efforts
Just as evaluating environmental improvement activities is key to accomplishing your goals, so it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of your communications program. An evaluation plan with a clearly defined purpose will help avoid costly mistakes and will allow you to make changes that increase overall effectiveness.

Any evaluation begins by considering the elements of your communications program. Various evaluation techniques can then be applied through the stages of your program. For example, a formative evaluation is done at the beginning to test materials and ideas that will be appropriate for your target audiences. After the program is underway, a process evaluation helps you make changes to increase effectiveness.

Evaluating behavioral change of your target audience can be done immediately after your program efforts are completed to measure short-term results. At a later time, you may wish to evaluate long-term impact. Ultimately, the success of any lake association communications program can be evaluated on its effectiveness in motivating individuals to action to protect and restore the lake and watershed.

Reference: "Designing An Effective Communication Program: A Blueprint for Success."

University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment. Prepared for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region V. September 1992.