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Census Director of Communication Speaks to PC Students

Associate director of communications for the U.S. Census Bureau, Steven J. Jost.

Steven J. Jost, associate director of communications for the U.S. Census Bureau speaks to Professor Joseph Graf's Public Relations Case Studies class.

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau’s communications team must create a plan to reach every person in the nation: People who live in mobile homes, on Native American reservations, in remote parts of Alaska, or even on the street. Each of the more than 300 million residents must be contacted.

“We at the U.S. Census Bureau are obsessively focused on counting everyone,” said Steven J. Jost, associate director of communications for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Jost was on camps campus recently speaking to Professor Joseph Graf’s Public Relations Case Studies class about the challenges and strategies behind the 2010 Census Integrated Communications Campaign, noting that the successful communications campaign allowed the Census to return $1.6 billion to the U.S. Treasury.

The Census is a constitutionally mandated count of everyone in the country every 10 years, with the results used to allocate electoral votes, seats in Congress and government funding. And the economic stakes are high: If a household mails back its Census form, it costs the government $0.42 in prepaid postage. If not, the follow-up house call costs $57, Jost said. 

Jost said 72 percent of U.S. households mailed back their Census forms, matching the response rate in the 2000 Census. Census workers followed up with house calls to the remaining 47 million households.  

The 2010 Census, he said, had to deal with declining civic engagement, unprecedented levels of mistrust in government, the worst recession in half a century, uneven participation rates across ethnicities and changing media consumption. 

So, Jost’s team decided to reach people through paid advertising, partnerships, publicity through public relations, digital resources such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter, and the Census in Schools program.  

The campaign was grounded in solid research, with the bureau conducting numerous surveys and 115 focus groups in 24 languages and using that research to design customized advertising for specific local and ethnic markets. 

The bureau also partnered with 257,000 organizations to build awareness and crossed the nation in a road tour. The Census in Schools program reached 56 million children, who were able to bring the Census message home to their parents.  

“This is one of the largest and most complex strategic communication campaigns I have ever seen,” Graf said. “Getting Steve to come in was a real coup for this class.” 

COMM 346: PR Case Studies is a communication campaigns class that is part of the required Public Communication curriculum.