Chapter 4.2: External communications and outreach

Context

All organizations, whether in the public or private sectors, must advertise and promote their programs and services to their target groups. These are the basic pillars of external communication and outreach. Given the context in which they operate, organizations target and implement the strategies and activities that will help them achieve their objectives and have a positive impact on their audiences.

For Statistics Canada, external communications are crucial to ensuring that Canadians have access to current, relevant and quality information on Canada's changing economy and society. This information is used to support debate, research and decision-making on social and economic issues.

Like all Government of Canada departments and agencies, Statistics Canada must comply with the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada when distributing communications. According to this policy, all federal departments and agencies must ensure that they use a variety of communication means and mechanisms to provide timely information on the products and services offered to Canadians, regardless of their information needs and preferences.

Given the scope of data collected and published by Statistics Canada, or any other statistical agency, the agency must deal with a wide range of data users and partners. These groups include all levels of government (federal, provincial, territorial and municipal), the private sector, the academic sector, the media, non-profit organizations, the general public and international partners.

Strategies, mechanisms and tools

A good external communication strategy involves adopting a targeted approach that is rooted in new information technology and web development, using a variety of mechanisms and tools, and combining conventional communication practices with innovation. In this way, the agency ensures that it meets the following objectives:

  • Efficiently update the public on program results, official statistics and analyses on society and the state of the economy.
  • Project a positive image of the agency to cement its reputation of excellence.
  • Generate interest and encourage individuals and businesses to take part in the agency's surveys.

The next section presents the mechanisms and tools that have enabled Statistics Canada to implement this strategy.

1. The Statistics Canada website – the centralized dissemination tool

The Statistics Canada website is the main tool in Canada for disseminating data. On average, it receives over 25 million hits and over 150 million page views annually. Given its major role in disseminating statistical data, this medium is thoroughly discussed in Chapter 4.1: Disseminating data through the website. This chapter describes the evolution of the Statistics Canada website and the strategies used for optimal data dissemination.

2. The Daily – the official release bulletin

The Daily is Statistics Canada's official release bulletin, the agency's front line of communication with the media and the public.

It supports the agency's mandate to publish statistical information on Canada's economy and society. Published since 1932, it has appeared on the Statistics Canada's website since 1995.

The only bulletin of its kind to be published by a statistical agency, The Daily provides Canadians with equal, free access to all of Statistics Canada's new data sets, analytical products and information products. Seasoned users visit the website daily, since it is published at 8:30 a.m. (EST) every business day.

Statistics Canada has implemented stringent official mechanisms and processes to ensure the constant, effective protection of confidential data prior to dissemination. Pursuant to the Statistics Act, the Policy on Official Release governs these requirements for the official release of The Daily.

In addition, training on writing news releases is regularly provided to subject-matter analysts who submit articles for dissemination in The Daily. This training reinforces the editorial line of The Daily through standardized, consistent writing.

Statistics Canada has also established an official process for correcting information and following up on corrections before and after the dissemination of official releases. The Directive on Corrections to Daily Releases and Statistical Products outlines the necessary provisions for a standardized and consistent approach to identifying, communicating, approving and publishing post-release corrections.

The calendar of release dates for economic indicators (e.g., GDP, CPI, unemployment rates) is published in The Daily one year in advance, allowing all users to be informed ahead of time. Furthermore, a release schedule for upcoming releases is published each week. In this way, Statistics Canada takes a proactive stance on informing Canadians of the release of survey results, indicators and products. This practice also complies with the requirements of the Special Data Dissemination Standards set by the International Monetary Fund, which are applied by many national statistical agencies.

3. Media relations

Communicating with the media should be a major commitment for any statistical organization, given that media coverage of releases will ensure that available data has greater outreach. Media relations not only contribute to the widespread dissemination of agency data and analyses, but also promote openness and transparency by participating in interviews with the media, facilitating access to data and analyses and, finally, maintaining the agency's good public image.

In Canada, media relations activities are managed in accordance with Statistics Canada's Directive on Media Relations. A heavy emphasis is placed on the accessibility of material that Statistics Canada provides to the media for use and redistribution. Occasionally, the agency recruits journalists to train its employees on the best way to present information to the media so that the media can better transmit that information. Journalists are also offered workshops on analyzing and interpreting the data produced by Statistics Canada.

The Media Hotline continues to be the first point of contact for journalists searching for information. This hotline is available Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (EST) and serves 2,000 to 2,500 media requests annually. An after-hours service is also available for urgent media requests.

Some journalist inquiries involve requests for custom data, meaning data that are not directly available on the website and need to be prepared by subject-matter experts. This preparation is free for requests requiring fewer than three hours of work. Requests that take longer to prepare are processed on a cost-recovery basis (i.e., the user must pay to gain access).

For the dissemination of key economic indicators, Statistics Canada also offers lock-up sessions to accredited journalists from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. (EST), 12 to 15 times monthly. In addition, during census data release periods, media lock-ups are held from midnight to 8:30 a.m. for each release (the schedule of the Census Program lock-ups may vary from one cycle to the next). These lock-ups are held under controlled conditions, since journalists have access to new data and analyses prior to their dissemination. Journalists must come to the Statistics Canada offices, where they are brought to a secured room where Internet communication lines are cut for the duration of the lock-up, and must turn in their telephones and any other electronic devices. Journalists participating in the lock-up have access to documents and a computer. They write articles and ask spokespersons for clarification on the data and concepts. They cannot publish or broadcast their reports until after the official Statistics Canada release, meaning after 8:30 a.m. (EST).

Upon media request, one-on-one interviews with journalists can also be arranged, either live or for broadcast on television, radio or other media.

Agency spokespersons for lock-ups and media interviews are generally subject-matter experts designated by the agency, not communication specialists. Statistics Canada thereby ensures that the media have access to the people best qualified to answer their questions. However, the spokespersons first receive mandatory media training from communication specialists so that they are able to respond strategically and effectively to questions from journalists, whether in lock-ups or during interviews.

The Daily web module is also a key tool for disseminating information to the media. It contains a calendar with all upcoming releases, a list of spokespersons by subject and media advisories. Furthermore, the “By the numbers” module represents a source of information for the media looking for available information and data on a variety of subjects and special occasions, such as the Lunar New Year, Valentine's Day, spring, Mother's Day, Father's Day, National Aboriginal Day.

To proactively manage potential issues in the media, Statistics Canada monitors media reports and the accuracy of media coverage. The goal is to ensure timely detection and appropriate responses to media-related issues. One person on the media relations team is assigned to media monitoring. This function consists of monitoring and analyzing what is said about the agency in the best-known newspapers, as well as on the Web (including social media and well-known blogs). Tools or applications specific to media monitoring filter through the Web or in traditional media based on transcriptions (using key words such as statistics, Statistics Canada, official dissemination of statistics, unemployment rates, price index). The idea behind media monitoring is not to control everything that is said about the agency, but rather to ensure that the information disseminated is accurate and interpreted correctly.

If an error or misinterpretation of information provided by Statistics Canada is detected, an official correction request is sent to the media concerned to correct the accuracy of the information.

In the event of a media issue, the decision to have the Director General, Communications or other senior managers intervene depends on the nature of the issue and its potential impact on the agency's operations and reputation. This analysis is done under the direction of the Communications Division on a case-by-case basis after consultation with the program experts in question.

4. Statistical Information Service

The Statistical Information Service is the entry point for current and potential Statistics Canada users looking for statistical information about the country.

The Centre is open Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (in all Canadian time zones). Information officers answer questions from the public over the telephone (toll-free line) and by email.

In addition to supporting unbiased access to Statistics Canada information, this service was created to provide an organized, streamlined response process for information requests. Staff are trained to respond directly to basic questions that can be answered using existing publications and analytical tables, as well as to screen more complex requests for referral to more specialized services. This ensures equal treatment of requests and helps to reduce the workload of specialized programs.

5. Outreach activities

The goal of Outreach activities is to generate interest and add value to Statistics Canada products and services. By publicizing official statistics, outreach helps us not only to increase public awareness, understanding and use of Statistics Canada data, but also to generate interest and encourage greater numbers of businesses and individuals to answer the agency's surveys.

Statistics Canada offers Canadians the opportunity to receive custom release announcement emails through My StatCan. Individuals can register on the My StatCanportal at no charge, then select the releases, publications or other products for which they would like to receive announcements. This service makes it possible to customize information according to the choices and needs of Canadians. The My StatCanrelease announcement is issued each morning.

Statistics Canada also offers activities for more specialized target audiences, such as the Community and Business Outreach Program. This program includes the following:

  • Monthly newsletters on the most recently published data are sent to municipalities, the private sector (specifically, small and medium-sized businesses) and ethnocultural groups across Canada. These newsletters help these data user groups keep abreast of published information that has an impact on their activities—all the more since these groups are considered to have high statistical information needs.
  • Information sessions are also offered to these groups to help them understand in practical terms how to access and use the data available on the Statistics Canada website. These sessions use WebEx technology and allow participants across Canada to participate in exchanges on predetermined subjects.
  • External magazine and blog articles: Since 2011, partnerships have been forged for publishing articles for specialized magazines and blogs. The strategic role of outreach is to plug into the communication mechanisms and tools already used by user groups in order to answer their questions and concerns directly. Statistics Canada continually seeks to develop targeted partnerships to continue to maximize the scope of its data and encourage optimal use of it.

Lastly, since 2013, Statistics Canada has regularly organized half-day public events throughout Canada. This discussion series, Talking Stats, offers Statistics Canada the opportunity to meet and discuss with data users and other stakeholders to better understand their evolving data needs and to receive their feedback. These discussions cover various topics. First, the Chief Statistician, host of the event, presents statistical information, an analysis and trends of the topic at hand. This is followed by a discussion among expert members of the panel. Finally, the event concludes with a question period to respond to questions from the public.

6. New media

Statistics Canada is known for strategically adapting its programs and services to meet the rapidly changing expectations of Canadians over the years, particularly with the evolution of the Internet and expansion of new media.

Since 2007, Statistics Canada has been exploring Web 2.0 as a way to connect, interact and exchange with the public. The agency's first experience with collaboration tools was the development of an online discussion forum about the 2006 Census data. But it was not until 2011 that it developed a real strategy for having an active presence across social media platforms.

In preparation, Statistics Canada launched its first social media account on Twitter in 2010 to gauge public interest. In less than 12 months, the agency had over 1,000 followers without publishing a single tweet. Buoyed by this show of interest, Statistics Canada began releasing snippets from The Daily and information on surveys, without engaging much with the public. Bolstered by its experience on Twitter, Statistics Canada launched official Facebook and YouTube accounts, and engaged the public by responding to user questions or comments. From that point onward, the agency's social media presence became active and engaging. The Statistics Canada Twitter account ranks among the most popular official accounts in the Canadian Public Service in terms of number of followers. Facebook postings focus on statistical highlights of Canadian society in general. The YouTube account is updated continually with videos developed by Statistics Canada.

Over the last decade, videos have become a popular means of sharing information. Noting this growing appetite, Statistics Canada began producing and broadcasting videos and tutorials in 2009. These are intended to complement the detailed and more complex data available on the website.

Statistics Canada produces and broadcasts four types of videos, each with distinct objectives:

  • demystifying the role of the agency and/or certain programs
  • increasing awareness and encouraging survey respondents to participate
  • presenting the highlights of the most recent releases
  • facilitating access and navigation for website users; given their low production costs, these tutorial videos are an accessible, practical and visual way to guide people through data use.

In addition to videos, the Statistics Canada website offers online collaboration tools. In February 2012, Statistics Canada held its first live chat session with the public, discussing the 2011 Census data on population and dwellings. The demographer who was the spokesperson for the release answered the live feed of questions from the public directly online. This format was repeated for other census releases, and for five major releases from the agency per year starting in 2014. Participants register for the session and agree to follow certain ethical rules of engagement, and dialogue directly with the expert in the field in real time. This activity helps to support the Statistics Canada strategic orientation to further engage the public on the understanding and use of data through Web 2.0 tools.

Finally, Statistics Canada's blogs (StatCan Blog and Researcher's Blog) are additional ways for the agency to reach a savvier public, providing them with a medium to find information about current and future agency initiatives, and to make relevant comments about the direction and content of these programs.

Key success factors

Developing communications activities that are relevant and add value to data users and Statistics Canada partners is the measure of success for external communications. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the needs of the agency's key audiences and to provide a strategic and targeted response through appropriate communication mechanisms. To achieve these objectives, statistical organizations rely on and consolidate a number of key success factors.

The first factor is to always monitor and measure client satisfaction. For example, Statistics Canada has implemented consultation mechanisms to improve its products and services. Consultation activities are published online on the website's consultation portal. They handle website evaluation, new communication products and tools, services of the Statistical Information Service, usability testing and more. Feedback from these consultation mechanisms helps the agency to better understand the needs and expectations of Canadians and to improve or modify its programs and services as needed.

The success of communications activities also depends on close and ongoing collaboration between communication specialists and program experts. The relevant subject-matter programs are integrated into each communication project at the start of the process, and work is done as a team on behalf of the organization.

Furthermore, major communication projects must systematically undergo appropriate governance. In Canada, the Communications and Dissemination Committee, chaired by an assistant chief statistician and several senior managers, ultimately assumes this responsibility. The committee's mandate is to review and approve new or existing communications initiatives. This centralizes decision-making and ensures, over time, that external communications adhere to rules, processes and objectives that are consistent, strategic and compliance-oriented.

Lastly, compliance with clear and appropriate rules is also valuable for external users and partners. Because Statistics Canada has actively invested in the use of new media, such as daily online engagement with the public, the agency has armed itself with clear rules of engagement. These rules are adapted to each online platform to ensure that interactions with the public are conducted according to certain ethical and professional standards.

Challenges

Given the constant evolution of technologies and the proliferation of new media platforms, the public is becoming hungrier for instant information. Users crave fast access to information that directly satisfies their needs. To meet these demands, statistical agencies must prioritize communications activities and remain flexible to the expectations of Canadians.

Moving forward

Every statistical agency faces the constant challenge of always optimizing the statistical information it publishes for understanding and use. The organization must continue to be agile and flexible in adopting new technologies that complement conventional modes of communication in order to offer services that are relevant and useful to data users.

Box 4.2.1: Social Networks: From Information to Communication – The Ecuadorian Experience
From the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC)

There is no question that the existence and use of new technologies have changed how Ecuador and the world communicate and interact, resulting in new users of information—demanding, analytical and participative users who need not just information, but information that is fast, continuous and precise.

To reach these users and promote the use of information, the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC) turned its attention to new technological tools, in particular, social networks. The INEC therefore moved from being a mere generator and source of information to becoming a system of data journalism, a shift, which helped it to develop a direct relationship with users.

INEC in the world of networks

Today's user decides how, where, when and what to consume. This new form of communication has moved the agency away from disseminating data with a communications strategy toward disseminating data with a marketing strategy.

To implement this new strategy, the INEC began by analyzing its environment, users, channels and products. The agency realized that a large number of its users (academics, researchers, media and students, aged 18 to 45) were very active on social networks and the Internet, and that its channels were becoming obsolete.

Figure 4.2.1: Overview of INEC's environment, users, channels and products

Overview of INEC's environment, users, channels and products
Description of Figure 4.2.1

Against this backdrop, the agency had to evolve towards social networks and strengthen certain channels, such as the Web, by creating applications to facilitate data access.

Table 4.2.1: INEC and social networks
Network Date created Main statistics Secondary statistics Target audience Objective
INEC logo
2009 Average of 70,000 visits per month In 2007, there were 300 visits per month 66% of users are between the ages of 18 and 35; 61% are men and 39% are women.71% of website users browse for study or research purposes.35% of users visited the website more than five times per month. Although it is not a social network, the INEC website has become a Web 2.0 channel. It is the main repository for all INEC surveys and figures.
Twitter Logo
March 2010 75,162 followers 16,000 new followers per year Journalists, thought leaders and students, aged 24 to 35. This social network allows direct contact with INEC's main users. It has become a channel for quick and simple responses.
Facebook Logo
November 2009 27,714 likes 4,500 new likes per year People aged 18 to 24, 56% of whom are women.74% of likes are from Ecuador, followed by Nigeria, Costa Rica and Canada. This is a space that allows INEC to reach users who do not use Twitter. It also allows messages to be published with greater explanation.
Flickr Logo
April 2010 3,647 photos 246,357 visits   The goal of this channel was to depict the INEC's institutional work in pictures. The agency is currently re-conceptualizing the network.
YouTube Logo
June 2010 368 videos 54,448 copies 54.1% of YouTube users are men and 45.9% are women. This network allows the agency to explain figures and work from the INEC in instructive terms. It supports the other networks.
Instagram Logo
January 2015 78 followers 12 photographs   This was created to depict the INEC's work graphically. The INEC is looking into the best way to use this network.
WhatsApp Logo
January 2015 26 members   Journalists This network allows the INEC to quickly and directly contact journalists in emergency situations.
Blog Logo
April 2014 18 posts     This was created as a means of positioning INEC networks in search engines and having a greater presence on the Internet. The blog is designed to publish different statistical information.

Starting up: attracting users

The INEC

  • identified its best clients that were best suited to be ambassadors for its brand and services
  • created a profile of followers so as to segment and use them appropriately for various campaigns and the dissemination of data or information
  • sought out thought leaders and influencers, people who have great influence among their audiences, and encouraged collaboration with them through ongoing conversations with direct messaging
  • monitored the topics that had the most impact in each of the networks and how data and figures contributed, placing special emphasis on the leaders in those areas
  • established a policy on network management as a user guide.

Positioning

The INEC

  • introduced graphs, photographs, infographics and videos. At the outset, there was not much graphical connection and photographs were simply posted with related phrases
  • used linkage to position messages. Messages were published on dates corresponding to the independence of a province or the founding of a district
  • used special days to provide information on topics of interest, such as Health Day, Pets' Day, Men's Day and Children's Day
  • created initiatives on historical data and promoted the data of districts in the country, chiefly on Facebook and Instagram. The idea was to emulate Google, which constantly changes its logo for special occasions
  • disseminated technical terms through graphics and videos, and explained the methodology and figures.

Loyalty

  • Networks are not only a means of dissemination, but also an instrument for measuring public opinion on specific topics. For this purpose, the INEC has a continually monitored list of influential tweeters who lead the discussion on networks.
  • Over the years, the INEC has acquired defenders among its followers who can respond to any attack on its network accounts. 
  • The INEC aims to maintain a service account that provides statistical information in a user-friendly manner, with simple wording and posts that contribute to the discussions.
  • Gradually, the INEC introduced new ways to deliver infographics, moving from simple images to more marketable concepts. It also began to combine graphics with photographs.
  • Now, the products for each INEC event are well thought out, and the agency prepares a set of micro-infographics as part of a broader group of graphics. The goal is to use graphics and the sequence of data dissemination spaces to introduce a topic before other accounts.

Results

Entering the world of social networks has created new challenges and opened up new ways of communicating for the INEC, and has established the agency as a generator of data journalism. This position has been on the rise since 2007, when information was liberated by creating and empowering various channels, as well as segmenting users and creating products that facilitate the use of information.

This transition allows the INEC to claim that it

  • has reduced the misinterpretation and incorrect reading of data
  • has expedited the information delivery time
  • is a direct source of information
  • is the country's leader in statistics.

This communication strategy has caused the agency's media impact to grow by 481%, growing from an average of 74 monthly impacts in 2007 to 430 in 2015 at present.

There has also been a significant increase in traffic to the website, increasing from an average of 300 monthly visits in 2007 to 70,000 per month at present. Finally, the INEC has positioned its networks as statistics generators.

Bibliography

Government of Canada (2012). Communications Policy of the Government of Canada. Consulted on the 11th of March 2016. Retrieved from http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pol/doc-eng.aspx?id=12316.

Statistics Canada (2016). Stay connected, Statistics Canada. Consulted on the 11th of March 2016. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/sc/index?MM.

International Monetary Fund. Special Data Dissemination Standards. Consulted on the 11th of March 2016. Retrieved from http://dsbb.imf.org/pages/sdds/home.aspx.

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