During conversations in early 2019, Spartanburg County Librarian Todd Stephens offered to have the Spartanburg County Public Libraries lead the efforts for the county’s government to encourage residents to participate in the 2020 Census. The goal was to surpass the county’s 2010 Census self-response rate of 66.1 percent. Here is how we did it.

In the late summer and into the fall of 2019, we made great strides by involving local elected officials in efforts to educate residents on the importance of the Census. Our first efforts centered around the “You Count” campaign, where we created literature in English, Spanish and Russian to be distributed at local festivals, hitting on various demographics in the county. The results of our efforts lead to targets being surpassed by almost all local municipalities, which brought our Census campaign to the attention of an ensuing advertising partner Neue South, who had been working separately with the Census Bureau to encourage participation throughout the state of South Carolina.

Going into the winter of 2020, we had lined up deliberate and well-conceived plans to reach our goal, including our next wave of print and electronic communications and in-person events with more than 50 community partners. We were set to have encouraged Census participation starting at the end of March 2020 via our communications and events, through the end of the collection in June 2020.

Then COVID hit.

We moved from well-planned and well-prepared plans to on-the-fly events and communications methods that were implemented in a rapidly changing environment. Even as our libraries remained closed through the early months of the pandemic, library staff helped our partners promote Census participation through emergency food boxes and online communication.

As the country shut down, we prepared and distributed lawn signs that were placed in all of our communities at intersections and in heavily trafficked areas. We attempted phone banks (unsuccessful) and communications via geofencing (highly successful!) and texting.

Even with the pandemic, some of our plans remained unchanged. We ran a billboard campaign on four of the busiest transportation lines in our county along with an electronic billboard near the area hospital. A grant from the American Library Association also enabled us to place moving billboards on city buses encouraging Census participation through the spring and summer.

As we emerged from the strictest lockdowns, libraries encouraged Census participation through some of our community’s first socially distanced in-person events. We also began going to the local community college to encourage participation.

Even when we were discouraged by the pandemic of a lifetime and the race to complete the Census moved from a two-month sprint to a six-month marathon, we continued to work with our partners and encouraged and lifted each other up

Census completion deadlines were extended by the federal government, so we worked with the hospital to promote Census participation at their local COVID testing sites. We continued to develop online marketing tools for our partners and provide them with pre-written emails to share with their clients to promote participation. 

As soon as schools opened in the fall, we piggybacked on other groups’ efforts to provide school supplies in our communities, with a push towards Census completion. Mixing traditional and new methods of communicating with our communities, we were able to reach a lot of different parts of Spartanburg.

For libraries who want to apply for the John Cotton Dana Award, there were four main components that drove our success. First, we have an awesome community, and we reached out early to our local government, non-profit and for-profit communities. Second, we involved these partners in the process every step of the way. Third, we were unafraid to take chances and learn new skills and techniques. And last, we followed through. Even when we were discouraged by the pandemic of a lifetime and the race to complete the Census moved from a two-month sprint to a six-month marathon, we continued to work with our partners and encouraged and lifted each other up. Early outreach, constant communication, taking chances and continuing to follow through on our communications and plan helped us achieve our goals.

The value of our public relations effort was tangible and intangible. Through our efforts, we insured that the residents of Spartanburg County received their fair share of South Carolina’s $13 billion in federal aid each year. More importantly, we successfully created new relationships and partnerships while fostering old ones. These efforts have led us to better outreach in previously underserved communities in our county, and we will continue to improve outreach with the John Cotton Dana Award grant from H.W. Wilson.

Learn more about the John Cotton Dana Awards and how to apply.