Wisconsin Historical Society

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How to Make a Case for Historic Preservation in Your Community: Know Your Audience

Historic Preservation Advocacy Messaging: Know Your Audience | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you want to make a case about the value of historic preservation in your community, you must first understand your audience and the context in which you are making your case. This is true whether you have an audience of 1 or 1000. The factors that might contribute to the context of your preservation case are endless, from financial hardships and personal relationships to media exposure and political pressures. It may be helpful for you to start by evaluating your community's existing level of support for preservation.

Once you understand your audience's values and perspective on preservation, you can craft your preservation message for that audience. Since many decisions that affect historic properties are made well before a public hearing is held, you should also develop working relationships with your community's municipal staff and elected officials.

Know and Respect Your Audience

The first rule of advocating for any cause is to know and respect your audience. As you are drafting your preservation arguments and message, consider the individuals or group you will be addressing. Here are three examples:

  • If you want to build a relationship with elected officials and subtly make your point, invite those officials to a hard hat tour of a successful project that illustrates your position.
  • If you arrange to talk to a developer, invite the developer to chat over a cup of coffee and elaborate on economics and examples of interest.
  • If you plan to testify in a public hearing and have five minutes or less, focus on the primary facts of the case and gather evidence that will quickly communicate your position.

Recognize the Validity of Opposing Views

To persuade someone to change his or her views on preservation, you must recognize the validity of the differing point of view. This is especially true if your audience is in a defensive position and holds the power over a historic property. Look for common ground first.

It can be especially difficult to convince a property owner to give up some control of his or her historic property if the owner:

  • Can't see the history
  • Can't afford to miss out on development opportunities
  • Thinks that compliance with historic preservation design guidelines is expensive and time consuming
  • Doesn't typically interact with people who value historic character

Recognize Negative Perceptions of Your Cause

When you are making a case for preservation, it is also critical for you to recognize how you and your message are being perceived. Your target audience sees you as both an individual and as a representative of a group or organization. You may be perceived to be unreasonable, considered a minority interest, or dismissed as an obstructionist. If these perceptions exist, you'll have to disprove the negative opinions through productive, non-defensive counter-arguments. Try mapping out the opposing arguments to help you shape your case.

Maintain a Network of Talent and Insight

You should develop a network of mentors and experts to whom you can turn for advice about crafting the right preservation message. Seek out people who have a clear understanding of opposing points of view. These individuals may not be on your board. In fact, the people in your network who are not on your board may be able to offer more candid, objective insights. For example, if you are trying to convince a developer not to tear down a building before your group presents viable alternatives, you can look for preservation-friendly members of the local development community to help you craft your message.

Your network may also offer candidates for future board openings. The informality of your relationships with members of your network offers a low-pressure opportunity for these potential board members to learn more about your group.

Control Your Message

Even when you carefully craft your preservation message for your audience, your ability to control your message will have limits. Today's digital communication tools offer numerous opportunities for you to distribute your message—and numerous opportunities for others to comment publicly to a large web audience. For this reason, it is more difficult than ever to control what is said about your group or cause. However, you can control the delivery of your advocacy group's messages by taking these three actions:

  • Choose your spokespeople carefully
  • Establish clear chains of communication within your group
  • Make certain the right person responds to every call from the media

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.