Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.
For a community cat program (CCP) to be truly effective, various stakeholders need to be aware of the services and benefits it provides to the community. Feeders and caregivers, for example, need to know whether CCP staff and volunteers are available for trapping and any associated costs. Residents who are unhappy about the cats, on the other hand, need to know about the benefits of trap-neuter-return (TNR) as compared to the traditional trap-and-kill approach. And elected officials, regardless of their position on the issue, need to know about the program’s goals and overall effectiveness. A successful marketing plan and public relations (PR) campaign can accomplish all of this and more.
Broadly speaking, marketing is the promotion of a product or service directly to an intended audience. This can be done by way of traditional advertising, but also through unconventional “guerilla marketing” methods (e.g., postcards placed under windshield wipers in a busy shopping mall parking lot). PR, on the other hand, is all about developing ongoing relationships with your audience through various media outlets or channels. Again, there is a conventional route (e.g., issuing press releases that newspapers and television news programs pick up) and a less conventional route (e.g., a Twitter campaign to find homes for an orphaned litter of kittens).
Regardless of how a CCP gets the word out, it’s important that its messaging is consistent. Indeed, it’s much easier for the program to deliver on its promise if the messaging is clearly understood by all audiences. Clear, concise messaging can be very effective not only at building support for a program (through favorable policy decisions from elected officials, donations and grant funding, volunteer recruitment, etc.), but also for addressing opposition to it.
Different messages resonate with different audiences, however. Politicians, for example, might respond most strongly to a message about the program being funded with private donations, while members of the animal welfare community probably respond most strongly to a message about reduced deaths in shelters. For conservationists, the strongest response might be to a message about how the CCP stabilizes and even reduces the number of free-roaming cats in the community.
To be clear, this is not merely a matter of telling each audience what they want to hear; the message must be supported by the evidence (e.g., grant funding, shelter statistics, the relevant science).
“Partnerships can change paltry to POW when it comes to promoting a community cat program — especially when a municipal agency is involved. Too often (and most unfortunately), municipal agencies are seen as uninformed, unqualified or just uninterested. Collaborations make feline programs work faster, harder — and better — for cats and the community.”
–Lisa Norwood, public relations and outreach manager, City of San Antonio Animal Care Services
Developing clear, concise messaging is more difficult than many people realize, and efforts can be further hampered when policies and practices are undergoing dramatic changes, as is often the case when a shelter is making the transition from the traditional model for managing community cats to a CCP. Among the critical factors to consider:
- Leadership buy-in: Without the ongoing commitment of the people in leadership roles (i.e., shelter staff, field services staff and the CCP coordinator), it’s difficult to develop effective messaging efforts. Leaders must “practice what they preach” and require that their teams do the same.
- Staff and volunteer buy-in: As with all aspects of a CCP, it’s critical that the people on the front lines are fully committed. This means not only knowing what the message is, but also appreciating its underlying rationale.
- Style guide: To maintain consistency, a basic style guide should be developed. Among the topics to be addressed are the name of the program (“Best Friends program,” “TNR program,” “feral cat program,” etc.), frequently used terms and phrases (“community cats” vs. “feral cats,” shelter deaths, etc.) and common acronyms and abbreviations (CCP, TNR, RTF, etc.). Although these might seem like trivial concerns — especially when seen against the numerous other challenges associated with the implementation of a CCP — the benefits are well worth the investment. (Again, this is especially important during times of transition.)
- Frequent check-ins: As the new program is rolled out, it will soon become clear what’s working and what is not. It’s very important, therefore, to check in with various team members (CCP staff and volunteers, shelter staff, field services officers, etc.) on a regular basis, and adjust messaging efforts accordingly.
How to get the word out
Once a CCP has a clear and concise message crafted (and the necessary buy-in, as described above), it’s time to get the word out. Again, this generally involves some combination of marketing and PR. Note: It’s important that these materials be translated into languages relevant to the community being served.
Marketing. Remember, marketing is simply the promotion of the CCP, as a community service, directly to members of the community being served. Among the various tools you might consider:
- Vehicle wraps, decals, magnets: The CCP vehicles (typically vans) represent perhaps the best advertising opportunity for the program. Since these vehicles spend a great deal of time in the community, treat them as billboards. Use bright colors to attract attention, and make sure key information (e.g., program name and telephone number) is clearly visible, even at a distance. Such markings also increase the safety of staff and volunteers using the vehicles.
- Public service announcements (PSAs): Local television channels and radio stations typically offer free or discounted airtime for nonprofits to promote their programs. The more professionally produced the PSA, the more effective it will be. (And you don’t need to spend a lot of money; much can be done on a shoestring budget.)
- Videos: Technology is making video production more accessible all the time, and some of the most successful videos are made with little more than a smartphone and a solid concept. Videos are easily shared via social media (see below) and can be used to tell a range of stories. For example, Recycled Love Rescue’s short video showcases their TNR work in Baltimore and the community support around it.
- Social media: Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram offer unprecedented access to an organization’s supporters and the public in general. Used effectively, social media can increase a CCP’s profile within the community, generate donations, recruit volunteers and increase overall impact. (For additional information, watch the Maddie’s Institute webinar “Social Media: 6 New Things Animal Organizations Need to Know.”)
- Newspaper ads: Placing an ad consistently in the local newspaper gives residents a “go to” resource when they need help or when referring friends and family. You might also want to partner with your shelter for an ad promoting an adoption event, a spay/neuter promotion or some other special event, along with the CCP.
- Online classifieds: Websites that allow free classified ads (e.g., Craigslist) can be an effective way to reach caregivers (with “Free spay/neuter for free-roaming cats” or similar postings) as well as potential volunteers.
- Printed collateral and promotional materials: Although online options and broadcast media often get much of the attention today, printed collateral and promotional materials (brochures, postcards, posters, refrigerator magnets, etc.) remain an important part of marketing campaigns (and can often be used as training materials for new CCP staff and volunteers). Again, the more professionally produced the materials, the better. (See the appendix for examples.) With the availability of online tools and web-based printing services, high-quality, reasonably priced collateral is within reach of most organizations. Note: These same materials will often be used for community outreach efforts, a grassroots form of marketing. (See “Community Outreach and Engagement” for additional information.)
- Partnerships: Take advantage of “mission alignments” with other organizations within the community. Ask veterinary clinics and TNR and rescue groups to distribute CCP brochures, for example. If you’re working with farms and boarding stables as relocation options, ask them to spread the word about your “barn cat” or “working cat” program. By reaching out to their peers, these partners can greatly expand a CCP’s network of support.
- Other opportunities: Among the many other marketing opportunities available are direct mail and billboards. These can be particularly effective because they can be very targeted (and in the case of direct mail, responses can be tracked). Some communities also will include information about the CCP in residents’ utility bills.
Public relations. PR is about developing an ongoing relationship with your audience through various media outlets or channels. Among the channels you might consider:
- Local newspapers: Local news outlets are always looking for a good story, and your CCP fits the bill. After all, it’s new (attractive in and of itself) and has broad appeal (to animal lovers, of course, but also to those whose primary interest is simply a more responsible use of their tax dollars). Develop relationships with producers and reporters, and do your best to make their jobs easy (be prepared and provide well-informed, articulate spokespeople, have promotional materials available to share, etc.).
- Local television news: As a local media outlet, television news is similar to newspapers, but obviously with a significant visual component. It’s especially important, therefore, that staff — and the facility — are prepared to be on camera. Ideally, you will have high-quality footage (showing staff or volunteers trapping cats, releasing cats, helping at a clinic, etc.) on hand that you can provide the producer, which can then be used (as what’s called “B-roll”) to supplement live footage. Note: Increasingly, newspapers are including videos and slide shows on their websites, so the same visuals you prepare for television producers will likely be attractive to newspaper editors.
- Additional outlets: Although the print and broadcast news outlets are generally considered the most important PR channels for a CCP, these are rarely the only influential platforms in town. Magazines covering local issues are always looking for features and smaller “front-of-the-book” items (e.g., a story about a weekend spay/neuter clinic), and a number of bloggers focus exclusively on local (even neighborhood) issues. You might also consider a press conference to launch your CCP.
The audiences you need to reach
Perhaps the most obvious audiences for a CCP to reach are volunteers and donors, two key sources of program support. But an effective marketing plan and PR campaign can deliver a CCP’s message to a much broader audience, including these:
- Residents in need of help: It’s not uncommon for residents needing help with trapping and/or managing colonies to keep quiet for fear of drawing attention to the cats, thereby putting them at risk. In many communities, a call to animal control has traditionally meant impoundment for the cats and citations for the caregivers. These residents need to know that the CCP is offering a very different solution.
- Elected officials: Even if the CCP received initial support from politicians, their ongoing support is critical to the program’s success. It’s important that they hear — directly as well as from constituents — about the progress being made in the community (decreased intake and shelter death statistics, fewer litters of kittens, grant awards, etc.).
- Key influencers: Having influential members of the community (entertainers, popular sports figures, celebrities, etc.) spread the word (possibly through a PSA) about a CCP can raise the program’s profile and reach an entirely new audience.
- Skeptics and complainants: Although CCPs generally have broad support from the community, there will be detractors. It’s important that these people also hear about the program. After all, it’s likely that much of their frustration stems from the failures of the traditional trap-and-kill approach. Again, the CCP is offering a very different solution.
Examples of marketing materials
- Warm digs for some cool cats
- Trap-neuter-return: Better for cats. Better for the community.
- Seeing stray cats? (English)
- Seeing Stray Cats? (Spanish)
- Community Cat Program surgery form
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