Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fixing the PR problem

I tweeted this yesterday:
I've come to the conclusion that libraries, generally speaking, have a PR problem. We do a crap job of explaining to users the how and why.

The problem with our inability to explain the how and way leads to feedback from users that makes us feel especially uncomfortable. We react defensively or want to dismiss it and often our response is more ham-fisted than anything else.

There seem to be two kinds of feedback that we get that speak to this PR problem:
1. Users ask us to develop services we've already developed but haven't done a good job of marketing. Or, users ask us to better market something that we've been trying really hard (but failing) to connect with users on.

2. Users balk at a reality (usually a policy) that can't be changed because of the way we've negotiated a contract or a law that exists.

I think there are two ways to solve this problem.
1. Be transparent in all things--even the unpleasant ones.
Sometimes the response to the requests that your users make is not the one they want to hear. But, as a general rule, people want to be heard and they want to feel like their voice matters. Explain your policies clearly and without jargon. And when you have to say no, explain why in an empathetic way. Log the suggestions and complaints your users give you and respond to them in a public way. Don't make people feel ashamed to ask for what they want, even if you can't give it to them.

2. Be where your users are...not where you think they are.
If you're trying to promote a service, put up fliers in your students' dorms. If you're trying to get more people through the doors of your library, step outside your library and find out why more people aren't there. Or, even better, take your services on the road to where people do spend their time.

It's hard to get out of the echo chamber and learn to tell the stories of your users and their experiences. But part of fixing the PR problem is seeing your users face-to-face, listening to their feedback, and responding to it swiftly. Sometimes that response is a tweak to your services to make them easier to use, but sometimes the response is to explain those services (and their limitations) in language that your users can understand.

Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.

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