What the Census Bureau actually bought with a $657M PR campaign

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As one of its strategies for getting the most possible participation, the Census Bureau spends big on outreach. For the 2020 decennial count, the integrated communications campaign cost the Bureau $675 million, twice what it spent in 2010. Census Program Manager, Maria Malagon joined the  Federal Drive with Tom Temin in studio for details.

Interview transcript:
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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

As one of its strategies for getting the most possible participation, the Census Bureau spends big on outreach. For the 2020 decennial count, the integrated communications campaign cost the Bureau $675 million, twice what it spent in 2010. Census Program Manager, Maria Malagon joined the  Federal Drive with Tom Temin in studio for details.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Malagon, good to have you in.

Maria Malagon: Hi.

Tom Temin: So tell us about this campaign. There’s really two parts to it, I guess you have the community outreach that you need to understand who you have to communicate with, and then there’s the means of communicating with them, is that generally how it works?

Maria Malagon: Exactly. So we have a very broad effort to engage the population, which start years before the census with both communications research to serve as the foundation for the campaign, and also with our recruitment advertising effort, which is pretty big, too, because we always have to outreach, at least around a million people. So we can get more than 500,000 temporary employees that we try to hire every census. So it starts with that. And it goes on and on with other efforts like national and local partnerships, social media, digital media, and our Statistics in School programs, which we have several enhancements during the decennial, and well like paid advertising, which I think is the effort that most people see. And it’s more tangible for people.

Tom Temin: And just give us a sense of how many languages you had to reach that comprise the United States in the population. What do people speak here besides English and Spanish?

Maria Malagon: So originally, we created a campaign that was English plus 12 other languages. And then during COVID, we decided that we needed to do additional efforts, especially because there were certain areas of the country that it was very difficult to reach with what we have already put in place. So we increased to 47 other languages. So I will say that the top ones other than English and Spanish, are usually the Asian languages, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tagalog. We also include Arabic, Russian, Polish, Portuguese, French, and you use a lot of French for sub-Saharan African populations. We also do Haitian Creole. It’s a lot. It’s a huge effort.

Tom Temin: And I imagine you must have to have people that are very fluent in those languages working with you because it’s easy to make a horrible cultural mistake, unwittingly, isn’t it?

Maria Malagon: Absolutely. So one of the things that distinguish our campaign is that other than we try to hire a very diverse team at the Census Bureau, so a lot of people working in communications during the decennial inside the census. We also have the contractor that helped us put the campaign together. So we had a main contractor with 15 subcontractors, but the key was also hiring. Among those subcontractors, agencies that represented different cultures in the country. We have a Black agency in charge of African-American, Caribbean and African populations. We had an Asian agency, a Hispanic agency in charge of both Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking groups. We have an agency for the American Indian and Alaska Native population, a Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander agency, and an agency in Puerto Rico, taking in consideration that cultural norms are different over there from the Hispanic audience in the United States.

Tom Temin: What a great country. I wanted to ask you, too, is this a technique that is used by say the large, let’s call them Super Bowl-level advertisers, Ford Motor Company, Budweiser, Anheuser Busch brewing that have to reach pretty much everyone – you learn from industry and how they do that type of outreach?

Maria Malagon: Of course, we take the latest industry practices, and we have a very strong campaign in what we call the diverse audience. We in fact will say that the core of the campaign is ads that can be reached in terms of how we buy them, and how we create them, that can reach the entire population. But at the same time, we make some sort of a balance here with the cultural appropriateness that we have to have with these segments of the population that I described. And that even goes also with the ones that are not particularly minority populations. We try to create also, it’s advertising specifically for the rural populations, which not necessarily represent any of these minorities, but has different nuances to so we try to be very specific with this.

Tom Temin: Yes, that’s right. The rural populations could be white, and I guess you call it standard-issue American, but they have a very different communication requirement than say, Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Maria Malagon: Of course. You can go to Manhattan and you can definitely advertise for example, in transit. You can do, I don’t know, bus stations and billboard signs at the subway. But if you want to reach rural America, you have to go to radio. There’s no discussion, like people drive, they have very long commutes or are driving around. Radio is key over there. So our country is so diverse that you really have to balance that.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Maria Malagon. She is program manager for integrated partnerships and communications at the Census Bureau. And before we get to some of the results of all this, I also wanted to ask you how the rise of social media and if you look at it in 2020, very different from 2010, 2009. And so how do you track that? And how does that figure into this,

Maria Malagon: This definitely had a big impact. In 2010, I don’t think I have the exact number but maybe less than 10% of our advertising or our efforts were in social media. I don’t even think I can say advertising, I think it was more like native social media performed inside the Census Bureau. We did it, we were there. Not like that. Digital advertising was probably more than 50% of our budget, this time in what we spend on media. From the outside from our social media, both our native one and our digital advertising, we got about 100 million clicks on our 2020 Census.gov website. And from that, we converted around 43% onto actual people going to the instrument and answering the Census. So that can tell you how powerful it was. In comparison to our phone line, I’m not going to say that we barely have people answering the census through phone. But the online instrument was king here, that’s where people went. And if we look at the numbers from our ads, they, almost half of the people that came to the instrument, it was because they went to some ad or some link on social media.

Tom Temin: Got it. And is it fair to say that, well, you tell me, in suburban America, most of the newspapers, the weekly papers, and the daily papers of smaller cities have all but disappeared. In the ethnic communities do they still have local printed newsprint?

Maria Malagon: They still do. And that is really important, I think that we are making a huge change in terms of newspaper, yes, on the diverse audience, but you have a lot of ethnic newspapers are still going on and still being very successful. So when I say that after COVID, we increased to 47 languages, a lot of that increase was thanks to those local newspapers. Sometimes you cannot find an actual medium on a particular audience. I don’t even know which one to tell you so I don’t want to say anything wrong, but –

Tom Temin: New York used to have two or three Yiddish newspapers at one time.

Maria Malagon: You have Yiddish, you have Italian that we advertise in, we had Armenian, we change the language, we increase the languages. But you want to advertise but not always the medium that people consume is also located in the United States. So we cannot advertise on all of them. We have to buy in mediums here. And for example, when you go to a website that a lot of people from a particular ethnicity goes perhaps the sub website base in their home country, or like a radio station or something based over there.

Tom Temin: Right, so you got to be local.

Maria Malagon: You have to be local. And still, these newspapers exist. They are local, they are in the United States. And they are consumed, people like them, and people believe in them. I always say that something that you have to [consider] when you think about communications campaigns in the federal government and the languages, it’s like, sometimes you look at the numbers, and it’s going to tell you that a lot of people speak English and that they speak English. But yes, perhaps they speak English, but they don’t consume media in English, or they just don’t trust media in English versus if you really go and communicate in their native language, they trust it. Maybe it’s not a big newspaper is not one of the top in the United States, but they consume it and they trust it because it’s in their language and it’s run by people like them.

Tom Temin: Sure. And some of the big English huge newspapers, even people that speak English don’t trust them either anymore, is the way the media has gotten in this country. And besides the increase in number of languages, the COVID pandemic affected so many census operations, as we reported in detail. Other than the expansion of language, did this also affect your operation of the outreach?

Maria Malagon: It basically affected everything. I always say that we conducted a lot of crisis drills and non crisis drills. Look at COVID, we were expecting everything probably except for a global pandemic. So we have to change the whole structure. As you probably talk with other guests, lots of operations changed. Yes, 95% of the country they were getting just the mailer with the link to go fill their census. There’s a 5% still of the population that they were getting in-person visits that they were being, that their addresses were updated by the time that they were getting there. So you had that very rural areas, tribes, the whole operation in Puerto Rico that because weather phenomenon … for years, they were doing it in person. So you have all that population that we have to change the whole thing. That’s one. Number two, you have people who even if they had the form at home, they were not going to look at the form because they were extremely concerned by something else. So we have to change absolutely everything. Number one, we change the creative of the ads. A lot of what we produce, for example, had people like in normal circumstances in groups, and at the beginning, it’s okay, it’s what you have. But after a couple of days, that was not normal.

Tom Temin: You need to have a mask and so on.

Maria Malagon: You have to reflect certain things, including mask usage. If you wanted to show ads that show the enumerators, we had to change it to show someone with a mask, because we didn’t want to give the wrong impression. We had to change the media buys completely because you usually buy for primetime. And the buys imagine the hard work that we bought those media buys one year before. This was conducted on May 2019. And now we’re in March 2020. And we were buying for MLB games, the Final Four in March Madness, all these things that didn’t happen. So we changed everything to go more news oriented very early in the morning, very late at night where people were really watching, we start buying ads on play episodes like more on-demand episodes. I think we were one of the first sponsors of online concerts that became extremely popular. We moved to influencers, because a lot of people were in social media just to entertain themselves. And we even changed where outside, I mentioned earlier, like bus stops ads. No one was in a bus stop. But people were ordering a lot of pizza, so we started advertising on pizza boxes. So you have to change.

Tom Temin: You get your pepperoni and then fill our your census form right after you go do that. And just another question on social media. In print media, you can control the environment, or at least you know what the environment will be. But in social media, you could have an ad juxtaposed with something pornographic, something totally inappropriate that you don’t want to be adjacent to. Were you able to control that or at least monitor that?

Maria Malagon: We really try, number one, to be very careful on where we advertise. And this is with everything. Even with TV, we are very careful on what kind of shows, how the traffic of the ads is going to be ordered. We don’t want to be next to anything that is inappropriate. And we do the same with the media platforms of the websites that we advertise in. And we monitor that, we also have the ads that look more like a social media post, we had people monitoring all the time. So we pretty much cover most of the day with someone from our contractor team monitoring these and trying to tackle misinformation. We have a whole initiative called Trust and Safety Team that they could come and talk to you for a long time, all this specific efforts that they did to manage where we were and the misinformation that it’s a reality when you advertise on social media that can happen.

Tom Temin: And so we know that the Census came out, and most people now, after all the controversy’s over in the rearview mirror are accepting the results. But are you able to correlate the campaign in a data sense? Say, you had outreach to a Vietnamese-speaking or a Portuguese-speaking community with the rates of initial return or self reporting of those communities, such that you can tell whether it all worked or not?

Maria Malagon: Yes, our final results on that haven’t been live yet and those are still under analyses because there are a lot of assessments that they are conducting. And of course, those are third party in the Bureau not related to me. I was the program manager and of course naturally I want everything to come nice and successful. But from the day to day we were monitoring through our campaign optimization effort at nine levels of geography, all our main 13 languages, nine segments and audiences. So we were tracking all the time. And we could see at least on the day to day that we were way more successful than we were expecting with certain populations. And I cannot disclose those but we would see on the daily that our efforts were affecting that certain populations that we were expecting a lower response rate, they were trending better, just because they were following certain events of the campaign. So that was a very positive for us. A lot of things happen. A lot of changes in operations, are a lot of efforts that hundreds of people in the Bureau contributed to these. But the response rates end up being better than when we originally planned and definitely better than what we thought was going to be doing COVID. So I want to thank and I imagine this is going to be tested and a nice report that will come out. And definitely the communications and the way that we constantly change communications efforts, they were like, helped in a great way with the success of the program.

Tom Temin: And what you imply then is that the assessment in detail is actually not done by your group, but independently, so you as the program manager won’t come out with a report, evaluating your own program.

Maria Malagon: Exactly. Although we have done lessons learned, and I manage a very strong lessons learned process, we did a survey among our own people working and the different contractor companies working on the effort. We did focus groups on the all the areas of the campaign and interviews. And we learned like there are things that we still want to improve. I want to say that for next time, there are things that we still have improvement to make with the languages, with the way that we conduct our recruitment advertising, with certain things that we want to make more agile, I think the use of digital and social media have demonstrated that we need to find ways to be more agile. And there’s always room for improvement with that. And it’s difficult because we’re the federal government. And we have processes, and we have rules and regulations that perhaps you don’t have with the private sector client. And that has to be a reality for any advertising agency working with the government. But perhaps the way that we clear certain stuff can be a little bit faster, so we can really move with the times. That is the era of social media, and we have to be more agile.

Tom Temin: So has NIH called to recruit to get these communities to get vaccinated?

Maria Malagon: Oh, they have recruited a lot of people from the Census Bureau in the last couple of months. So I hope that our great staff that have been involved with the 2020 Census have something to contribute what they learned during the campaign with the Department of Health efforts.

Tom Temin: And are you gearing up for 2030 now?

Maria Malagon: We are gearing for 2030. We are actually, as I say, we’re conducting assessments. I’m part of that committee. I am not over the campaign any longer. But I’m part of the committee that is creating research to improve some of these things that I just told you to prove through certain studies that we conduct the campaign and we have applied certain things. I can tell you that one of the lessons learned that we had was that we really needed to expand our partnership efforts towards being evergreen. We recruited over 400,000 national and local partners. And unfortunately, that’s basically what we did in 2010. And you recruit them and then no one follow ups with them. So there’s not much we can do with local partners. We don’t have the staff to really cover people and really go and maintain the relationship. But we could do something with national partners. And that’s what we did. Right now I’m leading that effort. We opened an office called Office of Strategic Alliances with the goal of keeping those partners. We got almost 1,500 partners at the national level. So we’re still working with them in ways that we can benefit all other Bureau efforts like the upcoming 2022 Economic Census. And we keep the relationship and we help them disseminating data, making them more aware of what the Census Bureau does. We help our programs, and the most important part, we have the effort ready and still working. So for 2030 it’s way easier.

Tom Temin: It’ll come sooner than we all think I’m afraid. Maria Malagon is program manager for the Integrated Partnerships and Communications at the Census Bureau. Thanks so much for joining me.

Maria Malagon: Thank you.

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