Beyond Newsletters

One of the things that’s most alluring about amateur radio is the ever expanding variety of communication modes at our disposal. From the dots and dashes of morse code to the digital packets that can carry everything from voice to data, there is truly something for every interest. Hams prefer to create and consume their content in a variety of ways. The best strategies for public relations take these preferences into consideration.

Once upon a time, I was editor of the Oak Park Amateur Radio Club’s “RST” newsletter. I pulled together a variety of information that I thought club members might find interesting, cutting it into column inches. I pasted these onto sheets of paper that multiplied courtesy of the office supply store copy machine. A plethora of electronic publishing applications make this process easier than ever these days and many club newsletters approach the quality and feel of a micro version of QST.

But how many of us prefer the printed page these days?

In my work at the Michigan State University Alumni Association, about 80% of our graduates say that our Alumni Magazine is the primary way they keep connected with us. Likewise, a broad swath of hams eagerly await each issue of QST and CQ. Some who are attracted deeper into the technical arena subscribe to QEX.

On the electronic side, a growing fanbase looks forward to receiving the electronic ARRL Letter. It may be one of many digital resources we rely on to keep up to date on information and innovation.

How important is interacting in this new digital world?

Kelsey Weekman, who publishes “The Daily Tar Heel” at the University of North Carolina surveyed an audience of 18-35 year year olds, discovering that about 50% read electronic newsletters regularly. According to a 2016 report published  the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation, 0ver 40 percent of American adults get news on Facebook.

Once you’ve become an enthusiast of a social platform, you are even more likely to turn to it for information. The bulk of Reddit, Facebook and Twitter users get their news there.

What is the lesson for those of us who help spread the word for our local clubs?

Go where the audience is.

Back in the days when the Mad Men were enticing us to buy exciting, new and improved products, they appropriated the word “campaign” from the military as a way to describe the organized tactical application of messaging across multiple media. After researching how consumers responded to appeals, advertising agencies crafted a relentless diet of impressions designed to influence behavior. An elaborate campaign in the 1960s often included television and radio, direct mail, print and billboard advertising, telemarketing and sometimes door to door sales to move the needle of awareness.

We can take lessons learned from those days and apply them to today’s media toolbox to put the right words in front of the right eyes and ears.

Most vibrant amateur radio clubs reflect a broad demographic cross section of age and interest. Understanding how they consume content can help you target your own time and talent to foster deeper engagement with the organization.

The Anatomy of a Strategy

Every communication initiative begins with a compelling message. It works best if the product is good and can be connected with an inspiring narrative. Great clubs have a full menu of initiatives, designed to attract and retain both new and experienced amateurs. An effective communications strategy addresses both the broad club narrative and amplifies individual events that are connected to it.

Newsletters, websites and group platforms (like groups.io, Yahoo Groups, and others) can provide a broad brush to paint both the big picture and more detailed portraits of events and activities.

Social Media provides a tool set to engage in real time. Depending on the makeup of your audience, you should have identities on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat. Learn the unique languages and interactive cultures associated with each. The best way to do this is to follow popular amateur radio voices there (Here’s an incomplete and growing list of some interesting amateur radio twitter voices). How you say it is equally important to what you say in these ecosystems.

One of the benefits that come with social media is the ability to leverage Advertising there. Carefully designed Facebook ads can put your message in front of a targeted audience, encouraging them to visit your page. Major hamfests still promote their events in QST “the old fashioned way” with a display ad. Truly old school methods that can still be effective include posters on community bulletin boards. The MSU Amateur Radio Club uses this method to get the word out in our residence halls.

Do snail mail and phone trees still work? Again, it depends on your audience and your budget. Dropping a “save the date” postcard to remind the club about an annual banquet might make sense. A phone tree equivalent might be having a presence on one or more of the popular local VHF nets.

Use amateur radio to help spread the word. This may seem like something that goes without saying, but our own medium can be a powerful way to circulate information about your club. Talking about your hamfest in the middle of a rag chew roundtable not only gets the attention of those in the conversation, it may be heard by a broader audience who is listening “on the side”.

Podcasts have emerged as a popular platform for conversation. ARRL The Doctor is InHam Radio 360, QSO Today and the Dit Dit Podcast are three examples of how amateurs are leveraging a parallel universe to talk about our beloved hobby. Earning a guest spot on one of these programs to talk about something special your club is doing can be as important as an appearance on your local radio or TV station.

The bottom line is that your group will benefit from a mixture of media that gets your message to the audiences you desire. That mix will depend on the diversity of your membership, your comfort level with your skill sets in each communications domain and your budget – of both time and money.

By necessity, this discussion is oversimplified out of consideration for space and attention span. If you’re interested in learning more about how campaign strategy can be a powerful tool to electrify your communications plan, much more information is just a Google search away.

“Clubs fade,” notes former ARRL President, Kay Craigie‏ – N3KN,  “when outreach to members isn’t proactive…”

The key messages I hope I’ve inculcated into your brain are these:

  • Have a good product.
  • Know your audience.
  • Speak their language.
  • Be mindful of how and where they consume content.
  • And circulate in those worlds.

As a CW enthusiast, it took time to learn the language, especially in a high pressure contest environment. Ultimately, I found out where fellow travelers hung out, connected with them both on and off the air and made a point to regularly interact in dots and dashes. In time, I grew in skill and confidence. Ever the student of my passion, I soon evolved into a teacher, sharing my discoveries with new generations, realizing that the most rewarding dimension of our essential avocation is our ability to “pass it on”.