Advocacy Revisited

On Saturday at OLA 2010 I attended a session called Advocacy Revisited: Newer Insights Based on Research and Evidence.

What I learned first is that we are cursed. We are cursed by the “curse of knowledge,” in that once we know something it’s hard to imagine what it means to not know it. We become lousy communicators as a result. The “curse of knowledge” is described in the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

41OsvV quOL__SS500_ Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

We also suffer from the “curse of high public satisfaction.” The public supports libraries—there are few complaints—but while the support is there, the commitment often is not. In part, this is because people do not know a lot about libraries. But just as much a problem is the fact that support is highest among people who never use libraries—the biggest donors often do not have library cards.

This OLA session on advocacy was not just presenting the idea that advocacy is a good thing. Librarians have recognized that to change perceptions about libraries and librarians they need to be out in the community, and be passionate about libraries, extolling the virtues of libraries and what they are capable of doing for the citizens of the community. What this OLA session was about was the need to consider different ways of being better advocates.

As I learned in this session, we have to recognize several realities. There are lots of other agencies providing information answers out there, and we cannot just rest on our traditional strengths. We have to do more than just tout what we have: collections, access, hours open, physical buildings. We have to highlight the transformational effect of libraries. Libraries will get more support if we position ourselves to show how libraries can transform people. That means discussing the role of the library in economic development, literacy, school readiness, community development and quality of life.

Some distinctions need to be made to understand advocacy:

Public relations/publicity – this is about getting the message out
Marketing – this is about determining the market groups and what their needs are
Advocacy – “a planned, deliberate, sustained effort to develop understanding and support incrementally over time”
Lobbying – this is about changing legislation

While it may be true that the “meek shall inherit the earth,” the problem is that the news may never get out. Librarians need to be at the table, and they need to be connected to people who have influence—elected officials, people in the business community, and the press. To each of these we need to sell ourselves in their terms. For the business community, we need to sell business development, not the library.

Another way of characterizing this approach is FAB:
F – Features – the features are library resources such as books and physical space that are great to advertise but these generate the least interest
A – Advantages – the advantages of the library are what our resources and services do… we can talk about how they work, but these may not be tied to customer needs
B – Benefits – here we get to what resonates with people… the benefits explicitly connect features and advantages with customer needs

Librarians need to understand that advocacy is premised on the idea people do things for their own reasons and not for yours. We need to avoid descending into whining and venting frustration, and stay focused on communicating the benefits that libraries bring to the community.

 Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, by Robert B. Cialdini.
A book recommended at my OLA 2010 session on advocacy.

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