By recently entering the “professional world,” I’ve found people tend to be insecure and downplay their capabilities and qualifications. We often time focus so much on our professional experience to the extent that if something isn’t highlighted on our resume, that automatically means we lack that skill or asset. I’m here to tell you that that isn’t the case. People acquire skill sets differently, based on their background, personality, environment and working habits. Things don’t need to be so cut and dry. I’m sorry for my rant, but here’s why I began this post with a perhaps overrated motivational speech.
To be a public relations practitioner means that you work with people and you influence behavior. You work with consumers, advocates, stakeholders, mom and dad, friends, competitors to influence behavior in a positive and effective way. It is a very powerful skill and one that people don’t often recognize within themselves.
I was recently in Cambodia and met an American who opened up an NGO, Schools for Children of Cambodia, and was working with education system to increase school attendance. After visiting the schools and meeting with principals, my immediate thought was: these people need help. NOW. I spoke with Andrea and said okay, I’m willing to donate, I’m willing to teach english. I’ll do whatever is necessary! She then went on to explain that before we proactively jumped into action, it was necessary to investigate the root of the problem. Sure any college student can offer their service and teach english for a month or a wealthy European can donate a large sum to build new classrooms, but those services are only short term gratifications. What happens when the college student leaves the children? And what happens when the classroom begins to deteriorate or the bills are too high to maintain the classroom? What Andrea explained to me is that it is necessary to investigate why and how this societal trend began. What events occurred that led to this apathy toward education.
She explained to me that in Cambodia, children support the families and are often forced to prioritize working before receiving an education. Because adults do not receive social security or health insurance, they are often more fragile and delicate. As well, when children work in the rice paddies, their attention is required year-round, leaving no time for school. (I know what you’re thinking…why are children forced to support the families? Well, suprisingly, that is a cultural quality in Cambodia and one that people find respectful and admirable.) Similarly, teachers get paid so little, that they often can’t prioritize teaching or try to charge students to attend school. Which then furthers the problem. This leads to a lack of committment from teachers and no desire for children to pay and attend school when they could be working, making money, and making their parents happy. What Andrea then told me is that children not receiving an education and feeling obligated to be financially stable leads to problems in the future such as human and sex trafficking, which is another societal problem in itself.
Outraged and emotional, I felt that we needed to take action as soon as possible! All I wanted to do is send out an email asking friends and family to show support and donate to this charity and the school system. It was key that we use our successes and outreach. What Andrea then told me was that before we sprang into action and receieved western participation, it was necessary to understand and work with the key players in the situation: The Cambodian families.
This situation is tricky because it is rooted in customs and tradition. How do we encourage children to attend school, when they have been raised to work and prioritize their families? We would never want to insult parents by asking their children to choose over work, even though the benefits are extremely outweighted. How can we ask teachers to not charge their students when they are hardly making any money as is? Andrea has spent the last year not fundraising or raising efforts, but most importantly, doing research…primary and secondary research. She has been holding “focus groups” in the communities and asking them what could be done to prioritize education, what they feel the government and the teachers could do. She also realized that people did not put as much faith in her because she wasn’t able to fully empathize their situation. In order to get through this road block, she found local “ambassadors.” She found older students who were mature and articulate enough to understand the importance of education. She had the ambasadors hold focus groups and do door-to-door interviews. She had them claim certain aspects of the research and used them to create word-of-mouth marketing. Once they gained the locals trust, she was able to gain a clearer picture to this situation. She realized that although these people did care about education, they were never given the opportunity to voice their opinion. NGO’s had come in in the past and had try to fundriase, change the system and then leave. No one ever sought to ask the opinions of the locals and when they felt unwanted, they did not ever want to care or prioritize this issue. Although these locals don’t have the education and resources that we Westerners have, they have the heart and compassion to help their families and their community. They too can accept responsibility and create change. They were just never given the chance. Someone always did it for them. So then what did Andrea begin to do? She started delegating work and holding people responsible for their efforts. Little by little, people started voicing their opinions, relaying their carpentry skills, or their judicial knowledge and claiming ownership to small aspects of the campaign. Once people felt that ownership to an important effort, they held themselves more accountable to create positive change.
Andrea told me that this situation and event occurred a year ago. Since then, huge changes are being made in the community. Not only are schools soon to be built, but the community has changed. Education is now am important aspect to a child’s upbringing. Parents are involving themselves more and more and being pro-active to contribute to this cause as much as they can. The plan has yet to be completed, but she has fully received community support, trust and involvement. What Andrea has done is create a social epidemic. She didn’t just build a school and hope things would change. She investigated the problem, put herself at the level of her audience, and worked slowly and accurately.
Hopefully I haven’t bored you through this situation, because there is a clear point I’d like to make. Andrea was a college graduate from Ohio, having studied biology. She had no writing or journalism experience, yet her whole research and campaigned reflected the efforts made by public relations. She was conducting primary and secondary research, trying to fully understand her target audience before jumping into the implementation of her campaign. Before using different marketing tactics, she needed to understand customs, traditions, and culture. When she was posed with a cultural road block, she used local ambassadors to transmit her key messgaes to the community. Instead of trying to wow them with flashy billboards, she used the reliable word-of-mouth marketing to pass messages. Finally, she encouraged involvement and social interaction. Sure it was not through a blog or some social media device, but rather through the ways most effective in a Cambodian culture. She was creating constant communication and being receptive to her clients needs and desires. Once all that was accomplished, Andrea and the organization could then move forward with their implementation.
The point of my story is to relay how people every day, practice public relations. It is an inherent quality to want to positively influence people toward a cause or an issue. I was blown away that a young girl could practice tactics that I’ve seen used in global public relations firms. So don’t discredit yourself from your professional experience, because pr can be used on a daily basis. It is a powerful tool, so use it wisely. But once you take a step back, understand your situation, and think carefully and react strategically, changes will soon follow.
If you would like to contribute to this wonderful organization, click here.